Bootstrapping, rags to riches, rugged individualism -- all revered American legends: an individual born into poverty or other ill circumstances struggles against adversity and rises to high status and wealth, living the American Dream. All on the merit of their own character, will, and strength, of course. (Here's where we pour one out for Ayn Rand.)
There are a thousand reasons why this myth is so appealing to Americans, and why it's even more imaginary than a Duane Reade in New York City with no long lines at the check-out.
How many times have you heard someone (possibly even someone you love) look down on another group of people different from themselves and say something like, "Well, they're lazy/stupid/greedy. If they really wanted to, they could get a job/live in a better neighborhood/be a better person." It's a standard technique of racist or classist thinking that lumps all blame onto the individual and ignores the powerful, larger structures of institituionalized racism and prejudice that continue, in 2012, to create disparity in access to opportunities, quality food, healthy living environments, and much more.
This is why you should instantly box the ears of anyone who says that racism is dead, or that we live in a post-race society. That is laziness and patently untrue.
Now, to add to the reasons of why this is false, the National Institutes of Health released this week new research that suggests that stress in childhood, like that caused by poverty, "leads to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds."
High levels of stress hormones influence the developing circuitry of children's brains, inhibiting such higher cognitive functions such as planning, impulse and emotional control, and attention. Known collectively as executive functions, these mental abilities are important for academic success.
That's right -- the stress of poverty actually alters a child's developing neurobiology so that they have less access to their brain's full learning potential. Yet another challenge that these children have to push against.
Please note that this research is very different from the old stereotype of "well, XYZ race of people just aren't as smart as ABC race." No, this research shows that the stresses of specific living conditions often created by institutionalized racism and prejudice actually impairs brain function and ability to achieve. There's no chicken and egg situation here, like somehow poor people are dumber by nature and therefore remain poor. No, the poverty comes first.
You'll want to read the whole article, because the good news appears to be that reducing stress (caused by poverty, but also severe parenting, divorce, struggles with a learning disability) in children can actually boost their well-being and ability to achieve academically.