One of the reasons I was always proud to be an American is that unlike the United Kingdom where I lived for 15 years, we are, in theory, a meritocracy. But now I’m older (and more cynical), I’ve learned that while this country might not have the trappings of aristocracy, there’s an inherent class system based on prejudice and wealth. With the election of Barack Obama, our first President of color, the latent has become manifest and let me tell you, it is ugly.

Last week’s editorial by Journal Inquirer Managing Editor Chris Powell was a prime example.   Commenting on the case of Tonya McDowell, Powell wrote:

As for the huge differences between school systems in Connecticut — city schools typically being awful, suburban systems tolerable to superior — they are caused much less by differences in school resources or administration than by differences in the caliber of students themselves. Exchange the students of Connecticut’s best-performing schools with the students of the worst-performing schools, and suddenly the best will be worst and vice-versa.

That is, student caliber, not school caliber, is the variable to which parents have been responding in Connecticut since the internal combustion engine bestowed mobility and the first form of school choice, the ability to move to a nearby town…student achievement correlates not at all with school spending but almost entirely with household income, where the primary variable is whether the household has two parents or only one. This should be no surprise, single parenting long having correlated overwhelmingly with anti-social behavior and all sorts of lasting difficulties for children.

In just two paragraphs, Powell manages to insult minorities and single parents. As a single mom successfully raising two teenagers, I’d like to challenge the guy to get done a fraction of what I achieve on both the work and home fronts in a year if he didn’t have Mrs. Powell backing him up. I’d bet good money he’d be a failure of epic proportions.

Clearly a fan of the Edward Banfield “Culture of Poverty” school of thinking, what I think Powell fails to recognize is that there is a real difference in both the services urban kids receive and the expectations of them (he is a prime example) which impacts their ability to succeed from even born the day they are born. And with the current budget plans under way, this disparity will be even greater.

The Powell kids probably had good prenatal care because Mr. Powell had health insurance with his job. But most low-paid or part-time jobs don’t usually offer health insurance. So where do many women go for affordable services — Planned Parenthood. Yet its funding is under attack nationally and here in Connecticut (by state Sen. Len Suzio) for ideological reasons, because a small percentage of the services it provides are pregnancy terminations.

While suburban kids are off at Tumble Tots and spending a few days a week at private nursery schools, poor urban kids don’t have that option. Hence the Head Start program. But Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget would remove 218,000 low-income children and families from Head Start, close more than 16,000 Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms, and put 55,000 Head Start teachers and related staff out of work.

Maybe Mr. Powell should come with me sometime when I volunteer to read to K-1 students as part of a Reading is Fundamental program at the Carver Center in Norwalk. We read and do a craft with the kids and best of all, through RIF, the kids get to take a book home with them. For some kids, these are the only books they own. Oh, but guess what? All of RIF’s funding was cut from the 2011 budget. Last year, 4.4 million children received books and were helped with literacy through RIF programs at nearly 17,000 locations throughout the US, including community centers, hospitals, military bases, and other locations that serve children from low-income families, children with disabilities, homeless children, and children without adequate access to libraries. We extended the Bush tax cuts, so Mr. Powell and his suburbanista compatriots are okay, but trying to help low income kids achieve literacy is in jeopardy – because that’s “too expensive”.

Powell claims that differences between suburban and urban schools “are caused much less by differences in school resources or administration than by differences in the caliber of students themselves.” Clearly he needs to get out of his white suburban bubble a little more. My sister was a New York Teaching Fellow  in a school in Bedford-Styvesant. When two kids started hitting each other, she stopped them and wrote up the incident. After this had happened a few times, she was called to the principal and told to stop with the write ups.  “That’s just tit for tat,” the principal told her. “When there’s a fight, you’ll KNOW it.”

When she told me this story, I was horrified, and to me, it explained so much about why the school she was in was having problems, above and beyond the socio-economic catchment area. It’s about expectations of behavior – and this is why I so disagree with the Chris Powell’s of this world. At my kids’ suburban elementary school, if one kid hit another kid it would have been straight to the principal’s office. There was zero tolerance for that kind of behavior.

But let’s say they survive all that, and despite not having access to all the private SAT prep help that suburban kids get, disadvantaged urban kids get into college to gain the education that might improve his or her lot in life. Guess what? President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal cuts $100 billion for Pell Grants, the needs-based federal program that provides tuition aid for low-income students, 97 percent of whom come from families earning less than $50,000 a year. Congressman Ryan’s proposal for FY2012 goes even further. The House voted to reduce the maximum Pell Grant by 60 percent from the current $5,500 level to $2,090. While this might not affect folks out in Suburbia, it could mean the difference between college or no college for someone from a low-income background. Which means a lower paying job. Which means no health insurance. Which means the cycle of urban poverty continues for another generation.

One thing America has done extraordinarily well with in the last quarter century is to concentrate wealth. Whereas 25 years ago, the top 12 percent of Americans controlled 33 percent of the nation’s wealth, today the top 1 percent control 40 percent. That same 1 percent takes a quarter of the nation’s income.  I think it’s safe to say that the “trickle down” theory really is “voodoo economics”, just as George H.W. Bush said it was. The Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts have actually had the opposite effect, as well as adding to the deficit, despite former VP Dick Cheney’s, assertion to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that “deficits don’t matter”.

Now that the Republicans have suddenly decided that deficits actually do matter, they’re trying to solve a problem caused partly by cutting taxes for the richest by slashing programs for the most disadvantaged. The most disgusting thing about it is that people like Chris Powell are prejudiced enough to believe that the poor actually deserve it.

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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Sarah Darer Littman

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of books for young people. Her latest novel, Some Kind of Hate, comes out Nov. 1 from Scholastic Press.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.