The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 3 (Fall 2014)
Seeing the Invisible Poor
An Interview With Mike Rose
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
Mike Rose has devoted much of his distinguished career to the educational and intellectual challenges of those living in straitened circumstances. Growing up poor himself, he was for a time mistakenly assigned to the vocational education track at his school, an experience that left him with a keen understanding of society’s evaluative gaze, of how its measurements, categories, and labels shape both the ways we are seen and the ways we see and think about ourselves. Many of his eleven books, including The Mind at Work (tenth anniversary edition, 2014), Back to School (2012), and Lives on the Boundary (2005), aim at disrupting this gaze by questioning the assumptions and structures that foreclose opportunities for the very people most in need of a fair chance. A research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, Rose spoke to us about the difficulties in seeing the poor for who they variously are and for what they routinely face.
You’ve written very eloquently about the challenges facing people who live and work at the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder, and one of the things you’ve noticed—something you claim is greatly complicating their plight—is how many, if not most, of them are becoming invisible to the rest of society. What do you mean by this? How did it happen, and is it getting worse?
Well, they’re not literally invisible, of course. There are more than 46 million people in the United States living at or below the poverty line. But they are close to absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the SES [socioeconomic status] index—or as a negative generalization: The poor are dependent on the government, the “takers,” a problem. Consider Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent comments about generations of men in the inner city “not even thinking about working.” Neither the abstractions nor the generalizations give us actual people trying to live their lives as best they can.
Because of the various layers of segregation in our society—from work to schools to places of worship—those of us who are relatively socially mobile have few opportunities to live and work closely with people who are at the bottom of the income ladder. We don’t know them. And because we don’t know their values and aspirations, the particulars of their daily decisions, and the economic and psychological boundaries within which those decisions are made, the poor easily become psychologically one-dimensional—intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally simplified, not quite like us.