A Living Lottery
In a recent op-ed titled “3 TVs and No Food: Growing Up Poor in America,” journalist Nicholas Kristof argues that “too many American kids are set up for failure when they are born into what might be called the ‘broken class,’ where violence, mental illness, drugs and sexual abuse infuse childhood. Yes, such young people sometimes do stupid things, but as a society, we fail them long before they fail us.”
Kristof presents the example of two young women. Cassidy McDonald, 21, a journalism major at Notre Dame, “won the lottery of birth” by being born to a doctor and a lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin. Bethany Underwood, 20, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, by contrast, lost that same “lottery.” Her father was arrested for drug offenses before her birth. Her mother used methamphetamine when she was pregnant and went to prison when Bethany was three. A family friend abused her sexually when she was young, prompting her to self-medicate to ease the pain. “I began using marijuana at 9,” Bethany explains. By fourteen she had become a meth addict.
While Cassidy attended an excellent private school, Bethany dropped out of school in eighth grade in part because she read at a third grade level and did math at a second grade level. After Bethany ran away from home at fourteen, she eventually lived with a boyfriend who sold meth to pay his expenses. Today Bethany resides at the Tulsa Women and Children’s Center, a residential drug treatment program that has helped many women start their lives over.
Bethany made many poor choices, but almost anyone born in her environment might have done the same. While we should demand that people like Bethany make better choices, Kristof asserts, we should also demand that our politicians develop better policies to help to reduce poverty.
Bethany and Cassidy, Kristof argues, are both cheerful, friendly, and charming. In effect, however, “they grew up on different planets. And anybody who blames Bethany for her troubles doesn’t understand the axiom of America today: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”