Opinion + Voices

The stories about inequality that numbers can't tell

To understand inequality we must go beyond statistics and learn about the lives of individuals, says UCLA education researcher Mike Rose


Mike Rose is a research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Penguin has just published a 10th-anniversary edition of his book "The Mind at Work." This op-ed appeared May 12 in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For close to 35 years, I’ve been writing about a cluster of issues that involve social class, education and work: literacy, intelligence, academic underpreparation and the purpose of schooling. Looking back, I realize that I’ve tried to understand and portray the ways opportunity and inequality play out in American life. One challenge I’ve faced is rendering the complexity in the lives of the people I’ve interviewed. They bear witness to the damage wrought by inequality but also to the resilience of those affected by it.

Several years before my mother died, I interviewed her about the waitressing she had done for much of her working life. She was pretty sick by then, but she liked to reminisce and had keen recall of the details of restaurant service. We would clear off the kitchen table, and she would demonstrate taking orders and delivering them. She explained the memory tricks she’d use to remember who got the steak and who got the chicken sandwich. She could still balance plates along her right arm while holding two cups and saucers. I thought I knew her, but she revealed feelings and beliefs about her work that were more complex than I had imagined.

Waitressing was physically punishing but provided her, a woman with a sixth-grade education, a way to exercise some control over her life — she knew, she said, that she could always find a job. A customer might be rude and insulting, but she knew that such behavior was just ignorance and mocked it with her co-workers.

My mother grew up destitute and isolated in the domestic labor of her household. Waitressing enabled her to "be among the public," a source of pride and enjoyment for her. That social exchange helped create an educational setting: "There isn’t a day that goes by … that you don’t learn something," she’d say. For all its constraints and demands, waitressing allowed my mother to display a well-developed set of physical, social and cognitive skills. It was her arena of competence.

Those interviews with my mother became the most personal part of my book "The Mind at Work" (2004) a study documenting the significant cognitive content of physical work. The dynamics of social class and occupational status, as well as our enchantment with high technology, blinker our perception of the mental acuity involved in blue-collar and service occupations, whether waitressing or welding.

I wrote what I called cognitive biographies of people like my mother to counter the customary depictions of the inner lives of working-class people and the poor. Typical portrayals might reveal strength and courage — or conflict and despair — but I wanted to show a fuller picture of these people’s intelligence and everyday creativity.

To do that, I consulted experts in cognitive science, labor history, sociology and economics. Each discipline brought into focus a particular aspect of inequality. I remember listening years ago to a lecture by an economist on the devastation of neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles, an area I knew well, having grown up there. The economist was right on many levels: Local industries were long gone, unemployment was high, street crime and gang violence plagued the area.

But as he spoke, I kept thinking of the side streets where houses had mowed lawns and flower beds, where people had turned an empty lot into a community garden, where small churches distributed food and clothing. None of that negated the economist’s analysis but could have enhanced it — an ethnographic portrayal that suggests a pulse of rejuvenation amid the terrible problems his analysis revealed.

The economist and I have different goals. He was presenting a quantitative summary of key trends for an audience of other scholars and policy makers. I want to reach those audiences, but I also have another audience in mind: those affected by inequality.

Two high-school girls from South Central watch a feature about their neighborhood on the evening news. The camera pans an empty street as the newscaster intones that it resembles a third-world country. The girls are quite aware of the poverty and danger in their neighborhood; they were just talking about it before the newscast. But they’re taken aback by the reporter’s characterization. "This isn’t the third world," one says. "This is where we live."

My goal is to combine the economist’s analysis with a more anthropological look at the side streets, to assure those girls that they are more than the sum of economic indicators, yet also get them to consider the broader forces impinging on their lives.

I began experimenting with blending genres — weaving together narrative and analysis — while working on my book "Lives on the Boundary" (1989), about academic underpreparation in American schools and colleges and, therefore, about education and social class.

I present, for example, vignettes of college students struggling to make sense of a lecture in psychology or philosophy or to write a paper explicating a poem, and try to convey not only those students’ backgrounds and the feelings triggered by their academic struggles, but also their thought processes, previously learned reading or writing strategies that don’t work now, or insight that gets lost in confusing syntax.

Those vignettes are set within a discussion of the history and sociology of underpreparation, to give a more substantial account than would the vignettes or disciplinary analysis alone. Also, from the feedback I’ve gotten, it seems that this blend of genres resonates with students who themselves struggled in school. The pairing of vignette and analysis helps the analysis come alive, humanizes it. A story or descriptive portrait doesn’t stand alone but connects to ideas. The people being portrayed aren’t lone actors, aren’t odd or unusual — there are reasons for their circumstances.

Inequality has caught the public’s attention, and it is the writer’s job to hold that attention when so much else competes for it. How do we find the words to capture the brutal magnitude of the problem and the political and social forces that created it? At the same time, how can we portray the minds and hearts of the residents of a beleaguered neighborhood, of young people struggling in school, of workers on the factory or restaurant floor, of those on the street with no work at all?

There are many ways to analyze and write about inequality. I try to look for the trend and the life lived within the trend.

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