Monday, November 23, 2009

she's so "precious"...

Nothing quite prepares you for the rough-cut diamond that is the movie "Precious." A rare blend of pure entertainment and dark social commentary, this shockingly raw, surprisingly irreverent and absolutely unforgettable story of an obese, illiterate, pregnant black Harlem teen circa 1987 is one that you hope will not be dismissed as too difficult, because it should not be missed. Bleak, depressing, and shockingly brutal, Precious is the "feel-bad/feel-good" movie of the year. It's a film designed to pummel you with a situation that would send most humans into a weeping fetal position but to then show you that the power to overcome is greater than the tendency to withdraw one's self and die.

Sure the movie may be criticized social pornography at its worst, festering in racial self-loathing and oblivious to an economic system that routinely neglects its neediest and most vulnerable. Making those inbred white trash screen caricatures look like family values filmmaking at its finest in comparison. While certain to reinforce white prejudices related to African-American criminality, ghetto mothers as conniving, evil and violent welfare cheats, and habitual eating disorder fast food binges as sources of bad bodies and bad behavior alike. For all the darkness seen in this film it's astonishing the amount of light that is seen at the end, even though the unsettling nature of it all was still with me as the credits began to roll. Sidibe created a character so believable, she not only manages to earn the compassion of the characters in the film, but also those in the audience. It's a truly masterful performance in a film "Precious" is not an easy movie to watch, but it is an important one and one of the best films of the year (indeed of recent memory).

After watching the movie, I began to ask myself, "What are norms?" What can be considered a "normal" family life? The average social institution and relationships are intimately grounded in a pervasive economy of negotiation and discourse of power, which shape relations between people at all levels in a society. This idea of normalization is pervasive in our society: e.g., national standards for educational programs, for medical practice, for industrial processes and products. The movie provoked some research into the causes, sources, and possible solution to chronic, generational poverty and dysfunction, especially since many of the scenes in the movie were filmed in my neighborhood of Harlem.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 study, "The Negro Family" offered the argument that "the Negro family in the Urban ghetto was crumbling." This fed into other emerging contemporary ideas: such as the "culture of poverty" hypothesis. Accordingly, the culturally available and politically opportune way of explaining poverty was convincing: the poor were poor because they made bad decisions and lacked the motivation which would get them good jobs (assuming, as always that there are good jobs to be had!). The proposed solution was to reshape the poor, perhaps with programs that provide "values" education, along with the right mix of incentives and penalties which would promote "marital stability" and strong development of the familial unit.

According to the definition of relative poverty, the poor are those who lack what is needed by most Americans to live decently because they earn less than half of the nation's median income. By this standard, around 20 percent of Americans live in poverty, and this has been the case for at least the past 40 years. Of these 20 percent, 60 percent are from the working class poor. Black children have a higher chance of experiencing poverty during their childhood (79%), compared to White children (31%).

Minority women, particularly African American and Hispanic, are twice as likely to delay or have no prenatal care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). Troubled pregnancies expose unborn fetuses to the potential for birth defects, low birth weight, and premature delivery that can lead to lifelong cognitive, social and behavioral problems. By the age of 4, the average child of lower socioeconomic status on welfare might have had 144,000 fewer encouragements than middle-class children and 560,000 less than upper-class children and 84,000 more discouragements of their behavior than middle-class children and 100,000 more than upper-class children.

The effects of poverty are serious. Children who grow up in poverty suffer more persistent, frequent, and severe health problems than do children who grow up under better financial circumstances. Children raised in poverty tend to miss school more often because of illness. These children also have a much higher rate of accidents than do other children, and they are twice as likely to have impaired vision and hearing, iron deficiency anemia, and higher than normal levels of lead in the blood, which can impair brain function.

While strides have been made in a post-Civil Rights society, no single initiative has been able to break the fundamental correlation between poor families, impoverished communities, and low academic achievement that disproportionately affects minorities. More than forty years later, a Black child in the United States still lack a fair and equitable opportunity to live in decent housing, learn within adequate educational systems, and to prosper and excel socioeconomically. Measures taken further along the educational path to equalize the achievements of minorities, such as college enrollment quotas, achieve only small-scale affects and ignore the multitude of disadvantaged children who have failed to reach this point. As such, these policies disregard the long-term intergenerational effects of having one’s life choices limited by race.

A number of those in the Black middle class originally benefitted from War on Poverty initiatives themselves and were able to achieve a degree of social advancement and mobility. It has been posited that as neighborhood income increases, test scores and behavior improve significantly for white children but not for black children. However, those who are able to acquire the knowledge and skills that could influence and motivate the next generation of children moved away and left those less competent isolated in communities riddled with drugs, crime, unemployment and despair. A 1997 study in Chicago found that 79 percent of black middle-class households in Chicago live within four blocks where a third or more of the population is poor, compared to only 36 percent of white middle-class households.

Equal access to education is unmistakably one of the most important elements in aiding to lift those who can take advantage of such measures out of economic dependency and social mobility. Family circumstances that undercut cognitive skills such as poverty, high unemployment among family members, inadequate nourishment, overcrowded and unsafe environments, and violence continue to be present throughout many urban neighborhoods. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to establish a Presidential Early Learning Council to coordinate federal, state and local policies to quadruple financing for Early Head Start, provide federal challenge grants for states to use for early care and education programs, and expand home visiting programs for low-income mothers. These measures emphasize improving quality, not just reaching more children. Students at risk for the biological or social effects of poverty are also more likely to attend schools with reduced educational resources and fewer opportunities for quality instruction. The $787 billion economic stimulus package passed recently by Congress has provided an increase in funding for programs aimed at young children. Head Start and Early Head Start will receive $2.1 billion over two years, and the child-care grant program will receive $2 billion over two years. Additionally, the $10 billion Mr. Obama has pledged for early childhood education would amount to the largest new federal initiative for young children since Head Start began in 1965.

In a nation with a per capita GDP above the poverty line for a family of four, it is appalling that almost 3 million people work full time, year-round and are poor, and that more than 12 million American children are living in poverty. Lyndon Johnson proposed to fight poverty "because it is right, because it is wise." In a land of vast wealth, twice as rich as America in the 1960s, can today's leaders to rise to the occasion?

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