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A Practical Guide to Socio-Economic Barriers

April 21, 2012

What Are Socio-Economic Barriers?

“Socio-Economic barriers to upward mobility” is a general term for the social pressures that prevent people born into a lower class from moving over the course of their lives, or even generations, into a more affluent class. These barriers are drawn along a spiderweb of lines, from racial prejudice to socially acceptable/unacceptable gender roles, intersecting, overlapping, and dividing the population based upon what is socially acceptable at the time.

Conservative Mindset

I’ve had a lot of discussions with non-like-minded people in my day. As I’ve grown into myself, I’d like to feel that I’ve grown a more in-depth understanding of the justifications behind my beliefs. They’ve changed over time, and as much as I can, I base these changes on the evidence available. So it’s really frustrating when I’m having a political discussion (especially with someone who is reasonable–you know who you are–that has a differing view), and the conversation boils down to a question of “why don’t disadvantaged people just do blank?” Blank can be just about anything that would help someone from a disadvantaged social group ascend the socio-economic ladder, thereby bettering their lives. I honestly had no response for a long time. I understood that things were harder for those who weren’t well-off, but I didn’t have a name for the phenomenon.

Until now…

The conservative mindeset is a retelling of the old addage “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps”. A great example is the “If I were a Poor Black Kid” Forbes article by Gene Marks. Tim Wise writes a cutting critique of this self-aggrandizing waste of internet. (The Tim Wise article is “If I Were a Poor Black Child”…White Saviorism and the Politics of Personal Responsibility“). Wise explains that in order to understand the true meaning of Marks’ malarkey, we must consider viewership. Are these “poor black kids” the ones who will read an article in Forbes? No, of course not. Marks’ audience is like him, and he knows it. As Wise points out:

What is even more disturbing about Marks’s phony advice column is what it says about the politics of personal responsibility in America. For years we’ve heard the same refrain: those people need to take personal responsibility for their lives and stop blaming the system for their problems. We even passed a welfare reform bill in the 1990s named the Personal Responsibility Act, because to hear its advocates tell it, it was a lack of [personal responsibility] that explained why people were poor and in need of public assistance.

Capitalistic Fatalism

Another common theme I’ve noticed is the sense of fatalism among right-thinking people. The general thought, when I point out that the system is unfair to certain groups of people, is that the system is always going to be unfair, where some people will be on top, and others will be on the bottom. When operating from the view that an economic system is responsible for the welfare of the people subject to it, it creates the illusion that social and economic stratification is a natural process. I will show in this post by example that people manipulating the economy and politics are responsible for the oppression and exploitation of others.

If we recognize that economic and social oppression are caused by people, we should be able to point to specific people who are responsible, and that it is not some inevitable circumstance of a “natural” system that keeps people down, but rather those who profit off the exploitation of others.

The basic dogma is that anyone, no matter who their parents are, no matter what their net worth is, gets out of the system as much as they put in. This is the essence of the American Dream, where getting ahead is the result of personal merit. If it happens that some people are on the bottom rung of the social or economic hierarchy, it’s merely a natural function of an economic system.

This mentality is both incorrect, and damaging

It is incorrect because: as McNamee and Miller point out in The Meritocracy Myth, people overstate the role of individual merit in social and economic successes, and fail to consider accurately the positive benefits of their privilege (a psychological phenomenon called illusory superiority, of which american exceptionalism is a function).

It is damaging because: When people fail to recognize their privilege, they sure as hell don’t give weight to others’ disadvantage. When these disadvantages become institutionalized, such as slavery, segregation, or racism and sexism, it becomes oppression.

The Point: the result is a social system where the people who are privileged and the people who are in power tend to be the same. These people don’t tend to recognize the existence of privilege and oppression, and therefore have no qualms about making decisions for an entire populace that keep the oppressed down, and the privileged up.


1: Education and Race

Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program

There are two interesting components of this example. The first is the passing of the law ARS 15-112 and the history of the program, and the second is the resulting book ban enforced against the TUSD.

The MAS program was started in the TUSD when the school board received a desegregation order from the courts, after two lawsuits were brought against the school board, both claiming that the education management practices were segregationist. This all happened in the late 1970s. The program sought to draw in minority students to schools to equalize the quality of education. Since then, the program has continued to target at-risk students. After taking the program, these students consistently score higher on the AIMS test, are more than twice as likely to graduate high school, and three times more likely to go to college.

In 2009 the desegregation order was lifted by a district court, after it was determined that the district didn’t need a court to ensure that it was racially integrated. This made the MAS program vulnerable to new legislation, such as ARS 15-112, written by then state superintendent of schools, Tom Horne. After hearing about the MAS program, Horne drafted the legislation. The weird thing about the bill is that it gives the power to cut funding for school districts into the sole hands of the superintendent of schools. A school program is found to be in violation of the act if it commits one of the following acts:

1: promotes the overthrow of the US government

2: promotes resentment toward a race of people or class of people

3. are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group

4: advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals

The bill appears to be reasonable. Overtly it advocates tolerance and law-abiding. The wording, however is vague enough (on purpose) to allow a wide degree of interpretation, and considering Horne’s support of other legislation supporting a nativist outlook, (before Horne put this bill forward, he had supported the move to an all-english classroom in Arizona, and the mandatory proof of citizenship to vote) the intention of the law becomes clear: remove a utility for an oppressed group of people to change their social and economic status.

As soon as the bill was passed, Horne’s replacement in the superintendent’s office–Huppenthal, who ran on the same nativist ticket as Horne–found that the TUSD MAS program was in violation of the law. This is directly contrary to the findings of a study Huppenthal himself commissioned on the program.

So that’s the first part. A program designed to minimize racial inequality and help at-risk minority youth to graduate and go to college is targeted for elimination by a person of privilege. In this case, inaccess to education is a barrier to upward mobility. It served the political ends of a politician to create a barrier to upward mobility, and he was able to secure his position of power by oppressing others.

Now on to the book ban!

It turns out that in order to stay in compliance with HB2281, the TUSD had to stop teaching out of specific books that had to do with the MAS program. These books included:

Critical Race Theory, by Richard Delgado

500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, by Elizabeth Martinez

Message to Aztlan” by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales

Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” by Arturo Rosales

Occupied America: A History of Chicanos” by Rodolfo Acuña

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

Rethinking Columbus: The next 500 years by Bill Bigelow

I find it interesting that Pedagogy is included in the banned books. Let’s not forget that Freire was actually imprisoned for practicing critical pedagogy in Brazil. He directly contributed to the empowerment of farmworkers in that country at a time when it was necessary to prove the ability to read and write in order to vote.

One teacher was prohibited from studying The Tempest, by Shakespeare, from a racial perspective, because slavery and racism are prominent issues, and relating the themes in the play to the racial climate in Arizona would be violating state law.

The weird thing is that while these books are no longer allowed for class discussion within the MAS program, they are still allowed in other, non MAS classes. This is essentially a form of segregation. The reasoning is clear, even if unofficial: students who participate in the MAS program stand a greater chance of social unification.

2: Drugs and Prison

I’m going to start with some facts.

1) 1 in every 180 white men are in prison

2) 1 in every 20 black men are in prison

3) Black men are 13.4 times more likely to go to prison on drug offenses than white men.

4) There are 5 times MORE white drug users than black drug users

Essentially what we’ve done is create a model for systematized oppression

This model attempts to describe some of the ways oppression becomes institutionalized. Like I said above, we can point to specific institutions within our society that favor a privileged group over an oppressed group, that have been created and strengthened by members of the privileged elite. Like the book-ban and the dissolution of the MAS program are the direct work of specific people among the white elite (Tom Horne and others) to fragment and destabilize ethnic solidarity among the latino community, drug charges and punishments are weighted heavily against blacks within the US.

What we see represented in the statistics above is that even though white drug users outnumber blacks drug users 5:1 in population, blacks consistently make up a vastly greater percentage of the prison population. This is clearly indicative of unfair policing and sentencing practices. While the overt reasons behind this are not completely clear, there is A) enough evidence to show that blacks are systematically selected for arrest and prison sentences OVER similar white offenders, and B) that at least one legal trend exists that directly persecutes black communities over white communities.

The 100:1 ratio

There is a history of sentencing discrepancies between crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine. At some point, people realized they could use baking soda as a cheap replacement for diethyl ether, an ingredient in free-based cocaine, aka crack. Because the product became much less expensive, it flooded the low-income black neighborhoods.

The climate in which the “war on drugs” gained momentum was one in which racist overtones had clear precedent. As early as 1968, under Johnson, the federal government started cracking down on drugs. Nixon immediately approved new organizations to perform raids. Of course Nixon, a ginormous bigot, and operating in a climate of bigotry, focused on black areas. There was such a strong public demand for arrests that government organizations would go to illegal lengths to get them. Ford and Carter continued the trend, and Reagan established at least 29 new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs.

A common theme was a 100:1 sentence for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Possession of 5 grams of crack would result in a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence. It took 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same sentence. Thusly we see empowered white elites enacting legislation that is especially damaging to minority communities.

This Sounds Familiar…

According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, there are more blacks in prison now than there were slaves before the Civil War. Her argument is that the War on Drugs has disenfranchised generations of people of color, by virtue of stripping away their rights to vote, travel, serve on a jury, or live in public housing. Cut off from the possibility of decision making in the country, 70% return to prison within 2 years.

By making laws that target a specific population, the elites mute the voices and autonomy of the community, and there is no incentive for members of that community to participate in a system that disproportionately favors a population completely out of touch with their needs and concerns.

This is big and in bold because it’s important: A certain someone commented that it made sense to have greater sentencing for cheaper drugs, because cheaper drugs would result in a faster and greater spread. However, even though white users of crack cocaine make up 53% of the crack-using population, they only make up 4.1% of people sentenced, as opposed to blacks, who make up 88%  of the people sentenced. This demonstrates the racially-motivated targeting of the black population.

And yet again, we can point to specific people who enact these laws.

3: Women’s Reproductive Rights

For instance: Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, who last year signed into law a budget that cut funding for both education and Planned Parenthood, without raising taxes.

In case you don’t know, Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of reproductive health services in the country. They serve 5 million people a year, 26% of them are under the age of 19, and many are earning less than the poverty line. What I’m getting at is that they help normal Americans. A lot. Here’s a breakdown of what they do by percentage of total services:

Contraceptive Services: 35%

STD Services: 35%

Cancer Related Services: 16%

Pregnancy/Prenatal/Midlife services: 10%

and of course Abortion: 3%

there’s another 1% of other services

They designate 97% of their energy to activities that aren’t abortion

Just think about that. STD services and cancer screenings make up more than half of what Planned Parenthood does with its time. Often these services are free or significantly discounted, sometimes their rates are based on what patients can afford. And yet the political elite feel compelled to try and limit the ability of Planned Parenthood to help normal people without access to healthcare.

Back to Scott Walker. When I say that they limit Planned Parenthood’s ability to help normal people, I mean that they cut off 12,000 women from preventive health care. Ostensibly it’s because Walker doesn’t want women to have abortions. Which is his prerogative, however, whether a woman chooses to or not isn’t any of his business.

It also doesn’t make any sense

Medicare is restricted by the Hyde Amendment which bans the government from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother. Title X can’t be used in programs where abortion is used as family planning.

Another study found that for every $1 of public money is put into family planning, roughly $4 is saved, rather than spending that on maternity infant care for medicaid-eligible mothers.

Further support comes from professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, which calls for more comprehensive, government-funded healthcare to help people with a low socio-economic status.

In Arizona:

Arizona continues to be a hot-bed of oppression, this time oppressing women. A schmorgaz board of new legislation has gotten through that does a number on women’s health issues.

Law 1:

The Life Begins at Menstruation law states that life is considered to start at the end of menstruation. The name of the bill is kinda self-explanatory. Let’s think about this for a second though. If life begins at menstruation, then it’s technically abortion not to have sex. And a virgin could be considered with child. And retro-causality is now a legally dictated phenomenon. So that’s to get into the mood of how ridiculous this law is. Here’s some more serious shit:

A pre-existing law states that an abortion can only happen within 20 weeks of conception. Since the state has redefined life to start sooner, it potentially cuts the actual amount of time to have an abortion by two or three weeks, maybe more depending on how often the woman has her period. The intention is clear: make abortions harder, limiting a woman’s right to choose.

Law 2:

The Wrongful Life, Wrongful Birth bill protects doctors from malpractice claims. Great, doctors are protected under certain circumstances, namely if they refuse to give pregnant women information about the health effects of their pregnancy if the doctor thinks that such information might lead to an abortion. This includes if the woman might be killed because of complications of the pregnancy. How can you trust your doctor if you know they won’t suffer any consequences from lying to you? That kind of misinformation can actually kill you.

Law 3:

This law requires public sex education to emphasize adoption and birth at the expense of comprehensive sex education.

More Reading:

Read about Citizens United, which ruled that campaign donation restrictions were a violation of the first amendment, meaning that money is considered speech, and apparently there’s a very vocal minority that has more speech than poor people.

Another good example of rich people influencing public policy and keeping the disadvantaged down, is ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council–the organization behind SB 1070.


1) People in the elite minimize in their mind the influence of their environment on their success and maximize the influence of their own merit.

2) Since these people are unable to recognize the effects of their environment on their own success, they are incapable of recognizing the situational influences that keep poor people down.

3) When these elites talk about economic stratification, it is always framed as a natural function of a natural economic system.

4) This idea is wrong and damaging.

5) Specific people who are part of a specific group (the wealthy) are responsible for creating social controls that oppress poor people and benefit rich people

6) Examples include:

  • Disbanding the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson
  • Banning books in Tucson
  • Drug laws that target impoverished communities, especially minority communities
  • A legal negative feedback loop that disenfranchises non-whites
  • Anti-women’s reproductive rights legislation
  • Citizens United
  • ALEC

Thanks for reading!


TUSD deputy superintendent Menconi discusses Mexican American Book Ban

TUSD Rejects Reports of Book Ban


HB 2281

American Prospect

AZ Central

 Human Rights Watch

Planned Parenthood Fact Sheet

Wisconsin Cuts Funding for Planned Parenthood,_the_most_draconian_anti-abortion_law_so_far/

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ONM permalink
    April 23, 2012 7:23 pm

    Good points. For more see:
    The Misconception: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.

    The Truth: The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.
    The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

    The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.


  1. your ancestors, your fate or social-darwinism is the scientific equivalent to the myth of the american dream | leaves in the forest

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