I’ve avoided indulging in my regular David Brooks hate for some time now, so when this story bubbled up through the Trump noise, I assumed it must be pretty bad. But then I started reading it and the first half of the column actually is a summary of the book “Dream Hoarders” which describes how structural barriers like restrictive zoning, the privatization of educational opportunities, and the degradation of labor standards have contributed to stripping opportunity and class mobility from everyone but the upper class. These are actualy good points! What was everyone so up in arms about?
Then Brooks said, “I’ve come to think the structural barriers [the author of “Dream Hoarders”] emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers.” To Brooks, on one side there is a history of systemic racialized oppression in housing, labor, and education, that is all outweighed by the fact that there are fancy sandwich shops with unfamiliar ingredients that make poor people uncomfortable.
Brooks could be right. I mean, I’ll never forget the time I paid my rent in Frasier trivia.
So I propose an experiment: I would like to offer a group of middle and lower income families affordable housing in neighborhoods with adequate public investment like playgrounds and public transit, free high quality education with access to sports, AP classes, and college counselors, and unionized jobs that pay a decent wage with regular hours, good benefits, and enough time off to both provide for and be deeply involved in the lives of their children. But the catch is that we will make sure this group never does the things Brooks lists as examples of more important cultural barriers — shopping at Whole Foods, reading David Foster Wallace, doing Pilates, etc.
Brooks simultaneously can take the same budget and another group of middle and low income families to launch an ambitious and unprecedented popular education program on gourmet sandwich ingredients and other cultural signifiers, but the structural barriers (which Brooks says are not as important) will not be addressed.
I am curious to see what the outcomes of this experiment would be. Who would like to volunteer to be a part of my experimental group? And who would find Brooks’s experimental group more useful?
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