What Happens When America’s Kids Confront Extreme Inequality?

Yves here. I hate to sound like a pessimist, but I see the generally hopeful message of this post as unduly optimistic. And the flaw of its reasoning is in the headline of this post: “when kids get to confront.”

The reason these kids could confront inequality in this vignette is that the happened to live in an extremely atypical neighborhood, Chelsea, which has gentrified at a rapid clip so that the rich and borderline poor are cheek by jowl. In virtually all of the rest of the world, the wealthy do a much better job of cloistering themselves. But Manhattan is still a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and age/ethnic mix, and people spend a lot of their time on foot, so your immediate environs is very much a part of your daily experience (unlike a lot of suburbs, where your home is much more self-contained than an apartment in a city). The cliche, “familiarity breeds contempt,” fits. In other settings, where the moneyed can keep themselves at a suitably large remove from the less well off, it’s easier for them to perpetuate the myth that they are fundamentally better and more deserving.

By Lynn Parramore is Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Marc Levin, an independent film producer and director, has spent decades examining social justice issues in his award-winning documentaries. HBO Documentary Films’ “Class Divide” is the final film in a trilogy exploring how economic forces impact everyday people from Levin and partner Daphne Pinkerson. “Class Divide” looks at growing inequality in New York City and its profound impact on schoolchildren in the Chelsea neighborhood, where public school kids from the projects look across the street as the privileged sons and daughters of the wealthy attend Avenues: The World School, an $85 million for-profit facility with a yearly price tag of $45,000.

Young people from both sides of the street share their thoughts on a world in which rewards seem arbitrary and natural curiosity pushes them to look past the barriers erected by America’s increasingly rigid class structures. Levin, along with Pinkerson, shares the surprising revelations that emerged in the making the film. “Class Divide” will be shown on HBO in autumn, 2016, and will be screened at New York’s IFC Center from April 13th through April 19th.

Lynn Parramore: Your film shows how people can live and learn in the same community, and yet inhabit wildly different realities. Rosa, age 8, can point from her window at the Elliot-Chelsea Houses, a housing project, to a sprawling upscale complex on the other side of the street “where the rich people live” — a different world where schooling, expectations, and choices are determined by money and connections. How are America’s educational policies affecting the vast divide Rosa so easily perceives?

Marc Levin: It’s a big question, and a little beyond my expertise, but there are a lot of well-intentioned and very smart people who are trying to answer your question. There’s this new book, (
The Prize: Who’s In Charge Of America’s Schools), that just came out on the Newark experiment to save failing schools, with Facebook investing $100 million. We were in Newark to do “Brick City” (a docu-series on the Sundance Channel) and look at the charter school movement and where public education is going.

What relates to our film, I think, is what people have learned, or at least what Zuckerberg claimed that he learned from the Newark experience. I think we saw this in Chicago, too, where we did “Chicagoland” (an eight-episode documentary series for CNN) a year and a half ago, where the battle over public education is front and center. One lesson is that as well-intentioned, innovative, and creative as the ideas can be, if they’re just top-down, without a buy-in by the stakeholders, from the kids to their parents, to the community, and to the teachers, they’re doomed. It’s relevant to this story also, because here you have this class divide, but you see the beginning of something—you have the kids starting to bridge the gap on their own, just intuitively, and the institutions follow them. It’s amazing what’s happened in the wake of this film. We’re seeing Avenues and community groups starting to run a whole series of different projects and programs that are integrating the community in a new way and bringing in a lot of different stakeholders in a way that wasn’t apparent before.

Daphne Pinkerson: Hudson Guild (a community-based social services organization in Chelsea) and Avenues have been collaborating on a variety of projects. Hudson Guild has a range of services — they have a lot of services for seniors over there and the kids from Avenues went to hear the Spanish-speaking older adults talk about their lives and then the kids created monologues based on what they learned.

LP: You bring kids from different backgrounds together for the purposes of the film, but it sounds like you’re saying that you were actually looking at something that was already beginning to happen with the kids wanting to reach across that divide. Is that the case?

ML: I think certainly for Yasemin, who is a young woman from Avenues in the film, it was something she was thinking about. We just happened to appear at the right moment and amplify what was already happening with her and I’m sure some of her friends and colleagues, and also with Juwan on the other side. I think the desire for connection was there; it was the question of how. The film hasn’t even gone on HBO yet, but just already this fall (2015), showing it in festivals, etc, it’s amplified that phenomenon to the point where all of a sudden, the institutional stakeholders and others are following the kids’ lead.

There’s a big gathering that’s happening at Avenues on the whole future of education and how to not make it ghettoized because that is one of the issues with our education system. As you see in the film, the system is becoming more and more divided by class so that people who have the means or live in wealthy communities where their public schools can be funded by the taxpayers are moving ahead. Everyone else is falling behind.

LP: It was interesting how several of the black people interviewed in the film said that they thought economic class was a bigger factor in the unfairness they see than race. What do you make of that? Did that surprise you?

ML: Yeah, it did!

DP: Remember we’re talking to people who are in Chelsea, which is kind of a vanguard neighborhood. It’s kind of a bohemian area with a mix of people. So we’re not talking about Ferguson here.

ML: I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 40 years, and I agree with Daphne that it’s kind of a vanguard, progressive neighborhood and that there’s always been a mix. The gay community has been part of that. But there’s the internationalization, too. It’s seeing people of all races and colors, but some of them have got money. The kids are seeing that right in front of their eyes. Right across the street there are some high-profile celebrities who have got their kids in the Avenues school (they’re not in the film). There are people from all different kinds of backgrounds. So the kids are being exposed to all this. Hyisheem (from the Elliott-Chelsea Houses) says in the film, “Hey, if I went up to an African-American doctor or lawyer who had gone to an Ivy League school and done really well, he’s going to look at me the same way someone else is going to look at me, as a kid from the projects.”

LP: That’s really striking. Kind of suggests that we’ve at least made some progress on race in America, but it seems we’re moving in the other direction when it comes to economic disparities.

ML: That’s true.

LP: Several of the well-off kids you depict give the sense that they don’t think the system that has rewarded them so richly is legitimate. We often think about what inequality does to kids with less, but what negative impact does it have on kids with more resources?

ML: I would say yes, and that for me, that was the biggest revelation of the film. The common ground between these two sides of the street is a shared anxiety — where do I fit into this incredibly high-speed, changing world? For kids of privilege, they know they have privilege and money but they know they’re competing, not only amongst other private schools in New York City, but against kids in China, India, Korea, Russia, all over the world. They are very aware of that. They’re also aware that it’s not as easy, possibly, for their generation to attain some of the successes that their parents have. That puts a lot of pressure on them.

LP: So they’re not quite sure they’re going to stay on the highest rung.

ML: That’s right. And the kids across the street, obviously, they’ve got a struggle because they don’t have the money and the means. But I think they also see these rapid changes where even the social net that once was taken for granted, whether it’s Section 8, unemployment, certain benefits, that’s no longer guaranteed.

They’re seeing the safety net basically being dismantled. So you have this unique phenomenon where that is actually one of the things they share besides popular culture.

LP: At one point in the film, an Avenues student says, “I’ve been wanting to go to Harvard since I was 5.” Elements like this put me in mind of Michael Apted’s landmark “7 UP” documentary series, which delved into the lives of of several British children across class lines and then re-interviewed them every seven years. The series is a sobering statement on how much in life is determined by the economic class you are born into — something that is increasingly true in America. Was his work an inspiration? Have you thought of doing a follow up with these kids in your film in years to come to see how things turn out?

ML: Definitely. I happen to know Michael Apted a little and obviously I think that “7 UP” is one of the remarkable series over time. Certainly I’ve thought about it. I think it would be fascinating to come every ten years to try to find where these kids end up. What I would add to that, and what would be kind of unique and wasn’t in “7 UP,” is that I would make the community a character. You have the ability to see how a neighborhood changes over time in just this little area where we are here. So not only could we see where Rosa is at when she’s 18, or Yasmin when she’s 28, but we could see what happens when Chelsea’s Hudson Yards (
the largest private real estate development in U.S. history) is up and there’s a whole new city right out my window here. This whole neighborhood, what is it like? How has it changed? We could be looking at the characters, but also the community.

LP: Obviously the kids in this film want to see changes in a society they are just beginning to engage with, and they yearn to evolve beyond the inequalities they see. Will the system let them? What changes need to happen to make change possible?

ML: Every generation has got a battle. I came of age in the 60s; obviously, there was a huge battle — a cultural battle, a political battle, a revolution. I think for this generation, the income inequality is at the top of the list, with, obviously, climate change. This is part of what these kids have to be engaged in and figure out. We never get there. For each generation there’s a new struggle. What’s fascinating is how articulate these young people are — I think back to when I was in high school in the 60s — I’m not sure I had the knowledge or was as articulate on a lot of these subjects as these kids are. I’m optimistic that they’re not running away from the challenges. But there are a lot of new twists and turns that we didn’t face. I can’t give you the answer but I do have hope that these kids are getting engaged and realizing that this is part of the challenge they face and they’ve got to figure it out.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I think segregation from other classes is as much an attitude of mind as one of physical segregation. Its obviously easier to pretend poverty doesn’t exist if you are in an affluent exurb, but it often astonishes me how easily people can refuse to see or engage with what is around them. When I briefly lived in Manhattan as a student in the late 1980’s I can remember my amazement at meeting people who had lived in mid-town Manhattan their whole lives and who had never, ever used the subway – it was just a strange, horrifying place for them. And they would laugh at the notion of venturing anywhere above 120th St. And in just getting taxi’s everywhere, they moved entirely within their own social circle. I encountered the same thing when I lived in London – having lived in a working class neighbourhood in various parts of the UK before that, I found that in my fairly affluent circle of acquaintances in London my stories of living in those places were like dispatches from Timbuktu to them. I can remember talking a young woman, who considered herself educated and middle class (Oxford educated) who flatly denied there was any real poverty (“except for those who spend all their money on drink”) anywhere in England or London. She was absolutely serious. And London, in comparison to many cities, has many very ‘mixed’ neighbourhoods. If people don’t wish to see things, they never will, even if you push their noses into it.

    1. Norb

      I encounter this phenomenon also. I wonder if this is a survival trait embedded into the human condition. To simplify the complexities of the world we encounter daily, experiences need to be filtered. Choices are made on both a conscious and unconscious level as to what deserves attention. The main point being avoiding physical harm. The default position for most healthy individuals is to avoid pain and suffering, so most actions are geared toward achieving and maintaining that state- whatever form it takes. For all classes, the status-quo is the default position because it is the safest, easiest rout to follow.

  2. allan

    I would make the community a character. You have the ability to see how a neighborhood changes over time in just this little area where we are here. So not only could we see where Rosa is at when she’s 18, or Yasmin when she’s 28, but we could see what happens when Chelsea’s Hudson Yards (
    the largest private real estate development in U.S. history) is up and there’s a whole new city right out my window here. This whole neighborhood, what is it like? How has it changed? We could be looking at the characters, but also the community.

    There’s a fictional treatment like this, Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld, for Tribeca, which is several decades ahead of Chelsea in terms of hyper-gentrification. It’s a collection of interconnected short stories which exposes the class strata of the neighborhood – who wanted or could afford to live in Tribeca in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, and how they are now interacting, or not, with the people who came later.
    It is decidedly not optimistic about the mingling of the classes.

  3. DakotabornKansan

    What happens when America’s kids confront extreme inequality?

    Children, who live in eastern Kentucky hollows, are stereotyped. They travel considerable distances to attend schools with wealthier “city kids” and are snubbed by educators as “poor kids” who don’t hold much promise.

    “Poor kids in our area can’t get an adequate education – it’s very biased. There are basically the kids who “have” and the kids who don’t. I’m convinced that this affects a teacher’s judgment of a child. There is big discrimination. I’ve seen how the rich kids get more attention and more help in school. The kids who really need help often do not get it. They just fall through the cracks and end up dropping out of school. I was considered one of these poor kids, and I saw the way that the teachers treated me. I did the same work and got the same grades as the rich kids – but I was treated completely different. I was often ignored and nobody helped me. Even after I had failed a few classes, nobody even noticed. I remember my mom telling me about an incident with my sister. She had made all A’s on her report card and one time came home with a D. When my mom called the guidance counselor, she was told, “She’s not going to college anyway, so don’t worry about it.” My mom did worry about it, and my sister did go to college. I know that the government has spent a lot of money for nicer schools. I believe that they are more concerned with the way the schools look than in the education they provide. Although I don’t think that I got a good education, college has always been part of my plan.” – Isaac Fields, Bo Fork, Kentucky

    Why, in a nation so rich with resources, do so many children remain deprived?

    “There is a definite prejudice against the poor kids. They feel lonely at school, are chastised by the other kids, and are treated differently by the teachers. The school system around here puts everyone in their place. The poor kids can never be the cheerleaders. They know this, and it really affects their self-confidence. They grow up without any hope. Hopelessness is a lack of power. This lack of power is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kids get beaten down, and after awhile they just give up trying.” – Tracy Frazier, Letcher County, Kentucky, Community Action Team

    The Voices of Rural Children and Youth, http://www.savethechildren.org/atf/cf/%7B9def2ebe-10ae-432c-9bd0-df91d2eba74a%7D/voices.pdf

    1. different clue

      Whatever “the reason” may be, one may be sure it is very carefully planned and engineered, and absolutely deliberate.

  4. Keith

    Vast inequality does not support a consumer society and the problems with demand are being flagged by the IMF.

    We need to recognise that we have been through many versions of Capitalism and they all fail as this version is failing now.

    As John Kenneth Galbraith points out in “The Affluent Society” there is always a desperate attempt to hold onto the “conventional wisdom” that those at the top have invested so much time and effort in.

    The death throes of each system are maintained for as long as feasible until it is almost impossible for anyone to believe that this system works.

    A new system comes along with promises that everything will be much better and it is for a decade or two.

    Capitalism mark 1 – Unfettered Capitalism

    Crashed and burned in 1929 with a global recession in the 1930s
    The New Deal and Keynesian ideas promised a bright new world.

    Capitalism mark 2 – Keynesian Capitalism

    Ended with stagflation in the 1970s
    Market led Capitalism ideas promised a bright new world.

    Capitalism mark 3 – Unfettered Capitalism (Part 2 – Market led Capitalism)

    Crashed and burned in 2008 with a global recession in the 2010s.

    It has followed the same path as Unfettered Capitalism (Mark 1).

    1920s/2000s – high inequality, high banker pay, low regulation, low taxes for the wealthy, robber barons (CEOs), reckless bankers, globalisation phase

    1929/2008 – Wall Street crash

    1930s/2010s – Global recession, currency wars, rising nationalism and extremism

    We’ve done Neo-Keynesian stimulus.

    After eight years of pumping trillions into the top of the economic pyramid, banks, and waiting for it to trickle down.

    It didn’t work, hardly anything trickled down.

    The powers that be are now for Keynesian stimulus.

    Carry out infrastructure projects that create jobs and wages which will be spent into the economy and trickle up (pumping money into the bottom of the economic pyramid).

    It looks as though we are headed into Capitalism mark 4 – Keynesian Capitalism (Part 2)

    More redistributive Capitalism coming your way soon.

    Corbyn, Sanders, Podermos, Syriza and Five Star are leading the way but the failing “conventional wisdom” still holds sway in the transition phase (death throes of the old system).

    1. Keith

      Life at the top:

      2014 – “85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world”
      2016– “Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population”

      Doing the maths and assuming a straight line …….
      5.4 years until one person is as wealthy as poorest half of the world.

      Pretty good.

      Life at the bottom:

      How is the global consumer these days?

      1) The once wealthy Western consumer had most of their high paying jobs off-shored. As a stop gap solution they were allowed to carry on consuming through debt. They are now maxed out on debt.

      2) Japanese consumers have been living in a stagnant economy for decades.

      3) Chinese and Eastern consumers were always poorly paid and with nonexistent welfare states are always saving for a rainy day. Western demand slumped in 2008 and the debt fuelled stop gap has now come to an end.

      4) The Middle Eastern consumers are now too busy fighting each other to think about consuming anything and are just concerned with saying alive.

      5) South American and African consumers are busy struggling with economies that are disintegrating fast.

      Pretty bad.

      Why is demand so subdued?

      “The Marxian capitalist has infinite shrewdness and cunning on everything except matters pertaining to his own ultimate survival. On these, he is not subject to education. He continues wilfully and reliably down the path to his own destruction”

      Those at the top are always blind to who the consumers are that buy their products and services.

      When you have unfettered Capitalism and leave these people to their own devices, they destroy the system by keeping wages at a level that does not maintain a consumer society.

      By the 1920s, mass production techniques had improved to such an extent that relatively wealthy consumers were required to purchase all the output the system could produce and extensive advertising was required to manufacture demand for the chronic over-supply the Capitalist system could produce.

      Under the last system of unfettered Capitalism, those at the top just couldn’t pass enough on to those at the bottom, through wages, to cater for the new reality. They were only prepared to allow those at the bottom to take on debt to buy the new products on offer.

      The money, the rich keep for themselves, they use to inflate asset prices.

      1929 – Wall Street crash
      1930s – Global recession, New Deal

      In the New Deal, Government had to redistribute the money from top to bottom to produce a working consumer society,

      It also provided free public services to maximise consumption and spending within the economy.

      The rich are their own worst enemy.

      Rather than pass a single penny on in wages that they don’t have to, the wealthy like to compete against each other to raise prices of things that exist already like fine art and classic cars.

      Then they can proudly tell their friends how much they have spent on fine art and classic cars.

      None of them can see the absurdity of their own behaviour.

  5. NeqNeq

    Ugh… I know they are trying to drum up enthusiasm but this is grossly inaccurate.

    So you have this unique phenomenon where [anxiety] is actually one of the things they share besides popular culture.

    For rich kids:

    they know they have privilege and money but they know they’re competing….aware that it’s not as easy, possibly, for their generation to attain some of the successes that their parents have. That puts a lot of pressure on them.

    For poor kids:

    they’ve got a struggle because they don’t have the money and the means. But I think they also see these rapid changes where even the social net that once was taken for granted, whether it’s Section 8, unemployment, certain benefits, that’s no longer guaranteed.

    So for the well off, its anxiety over competing with other well-to-do’s and maintaining a lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed. For the not so lucky, its anxiety about having a roof over their head, having a job, and whether they will get enough in food assistance to keep fed.

    ML has no clue about what its like to be in the bottom 25% if he thinks those anxieties are in any way comparable.

  6. Pat

    First off some of the reason that there is still some diversity in this neighborhood is the demon rent control/rent stabilization. And that is being hollowed out at a huge rate. Yes, there is are a couple of projects and a large union financed affordable co-op but for the most part anymore it is the rent stabilized apartment buildings versus the huge new developments. (if an apartment becomes vacant, they do minor work on it call it renovated and take it out of the system at market rents). And the things that people need that are not Whole Foods are rapidly being sent packing as the leases come up for renewal in the neighborhood. See the local affordable supermarket where the renewal price was over three hundred percent at least until the neighborhood got up in arms about them having to close and started protesting including a few politicians. Well the landlords refused to talk to the elected officials, but a neighbor told me yesterday they responded by changing the rent ask to a six hundred per cent increase of the previous rent.
    I’m for anything that shows information about income inequality, but any idea that this mingling of the classes is temporary is ignoring the reality. The rich don’t like to share their playgrounds. The help needs to live far away.

  7. Sherry

    As I was reading this, I remembered a time, a little more than 30 years ago when a friend from graduate school, who was from India, told me it was such a relief to be living in a country where there weren’t so many poor people. Her point was that seeing the extreme poverty of her home country on a daily basis, and not being able to do anything about it as a young person was so difficult to live with and so emotionally draining.

    We have no clue in this country what a mess we are making of things.

  8. EmilianoZ

    As Obama has shown conclusively, there’s nothing that good PR cant manage. For starters, “extreme inequality” has to be renamed. Maybe as something like “great diversity in income and assets”.

  9. susan the other

    We’ve been optimistic about fixing classism many times before. It’s an optimistic exercise only because we use the children to tell us, the grownups, what is wrong and right. It’s like contrition. Because a little child leads you to see the error of your ways. But we are always left with classes. Because it’s an adult world. It makes us feel good to see kids articulate the things that are wrong because we think they will save us soon. And we don’t have to do it. So here’s my question: Why is opportunity so scarce? Is some unseen force rationing it? One thing we do know is that families often determine the fate of their children; parents are the role model. So why don’t we start there, with all the ghastly adults, both rich and poor, who have grown into their own aberrations like twisted trees. Let all the twisted trees in Chelsea, rich and poor, have a nice neighborhood get-together and begin a dialog about the real world.

    1. susan the other

      We should probably get over the gold standard, the strong dollar, and all the nonsense surrounding the concept of wealth…. wealth is as wealth does. The reason we have no shovel-ready projects is because we don’t have any goddamn shovels.

  10. R.P.

    Am I the only one that when seeing “2016– “Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population” thinks we need a declared hunting season?

  11. ke

    Deterministic chaos doesn’t work from the top down, and the actors are afraid they will run out of script.

    Basically, the critters want photosynthetic building materials, but not a grass hut. And if you think about it, you could even give them infrastructure with a controller to change colors and forms at will.

    The exits are all blocked with trash. Do you want to give the zombie a heart attack, or do something productive?

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