COMMENTARY | New research brings to mind literary tales of old: A common girl of uncommon beauty catches the eye of a handsome young noble. Though there are challenges, they usually end up in wedded bliss, with lessons learned along the way about the evils of class discrimination. Notably less common are tales with the genders reversed, featuring a common boy catching the eye of a pretty princess. But why?
A study in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), headed by professor Ronald Kessler, indicates that boys struggle more than girls when rising out of poverty. According to the New Republic, Kessler summarizes his findings as based on age-old stereotypes, with boys from poor areas being viewed with suspicion and derision when moving into middle-class circles. Boys who used to live in poverty are frequently viewed as “bad apples” while girls who used to live in poverty are viewed as victims of circumstance.
While girls’ mental health improved by moving into the middle class, boys actually suffered from higher incidences of depression and mental illness after moving out of poverty.
The gendered split in mental health outcomes from poverty assistance calls for a closer look at how to help boys and men handle negative stereotypes when moving into new social and professional circles. Boys, particularly, may need more help adapting to new middle-class expectations and mannerisms to avoid being pigeonholed and stereotyped as outsiders. Public schools may do well to assign faculty and staff mentors to boys and male teens who are struggling with poverty or have just moved to the area.
While programs exist for boys in poverty, and are fortunately expanding, more of an effort may be needed to make these programs easily accessible, perhaps even mandatory. Though critics would deride mandatory public school programs to counsel or mentor impoverished boys as heavy-handed, forcing boys to attend even when they and their parents would prefer not, voluntary programs may be ineffective. Boys who need help may attend only intermittently or may simply choose not to go at all.
So, should “social class counseling” be a part of public schools, just like academic remediation? Students with low academic performance, after all, can be forced to attend mandatory test prep programs and/or tutorials. Would it be fair to force students, both male and female, with low family incomes to attend “middle class ‘tutorials'” that focus on reinforcing stereotypical middle class values?
Talk about a can of worms! Critics would quickly attack what could be seen as classist, or even racist, cultural subjugation.
But, based on the research, is it acceptable (or cost-effective) to simply throw money at poverty? If boys moving out of poverty are struggling with “bad apple” stereotypes, perhaps linked to their “other-ness” compared to middle class peers, is it acceptable to allow them to continue to struggle with this “other-ness” and not act? Additional research could help reveal whether stereotype threats faced by boys and young men moving out of poverty lead to measurable recidivism into poverty.