The Economist: Walking in others’ shoes

Is Colorado immune to poverty?

I’m sure many readers are disturbed by recent events that started with Ferguson, Mo.  Whether Ferguson ignited a fire that has been smoldering in communities short on opportunity, or whether this has exposed poor policing in America, or whether it’s about challenges in raising adolescents will be debated for some time. Unfortunately, our committed peace officers of all colors are becoming scapegoats and “legitimate” targets for some.

In Colorado, we might think we are immune to the urban problem of persistent poverty. Our residents are more mobile, which tends to coincide with economic opportunity. Only 8 percent of our households receive food stamps as compared to 12 percent nationally. On the other hand, in Colorado, 35 percent of female-headed households with children and no husband present live below the poverty line. This compares to 40 percent nationally. In the Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Rankings, Colorado consistently ranks in the top 10 states, but we are comparatively weak in supportive relationships. In this category Colorado ranks 20th and Denver ranks 72nd out of the largest 100 cities surveyed.

Do we expect our police to play the role of strong mothers like Toya Graham, who chased her son during the recent Baltimore riots? If so, then we need to walk in their shoes and highlight the success stories – not just the tragedies. Some interesting work by people like Roland Fryer, an African-American who grew up in urban poverty, sheds some light on the challenges of pre-teens and teens losing friends by applying themselves in school. Losing friends occurs in all American communities, and I believe especially among males. In our formative years we are naturally pulled between parents with their longer-term view and friends who often represent instant gratification. This may be especially challenging in impoverished neighborhoods. And when discipline is not enforced, the environment can degrade to anarchy.

Our world changed in November 2008, when we elected a minority as president. It was, unquestionably, a game-changer. Some people are empowered by this change, and some are threatened. Regardless, the election of Barack Obama represented a tipping point to the future.  New expectations have emerged. The evidence is clear. Skin color is not the barrier. As we endeavor to improve and make room for rising expectations, let’s avoid extremes – engaging in self-destructive behavior and blaming everyone else while accepting no personal responsibility.

A few years back, I ran an inner-city charter high school in Colorado Springs. The school educated primarily minority youth. Many were expelled from the school district due to bad behavior. These adolescents, while tough on the outside, had the same human vulnerabilities we all experience at some point in our lives. While some were intrigued by the opportunity of gangs, most were seeking a way out as they tracked to become the first high school graduates in their families’ histories.

There was an elective class at the same time we held a community fundraiser. We asked the entire student body what they would like to learn during the elective period. They wanted to learn table etiquette to blend in at an upcoming fundraiser. I was shocked and decided maybe I, too, needed a refresher on etiquette.

Categories: Economy/Politics, Magazine Articles