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Teacher Lesson Return to "How the Other Half Lives"
How the Other Half Lives
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Lesson for "How the Other Half Lives"

ISSUE: CITY POVERTY VS. SUBURBAN WEALTH

The writer lives in Brownsville, one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York. A visit to a high school in Norwalk, Connecticut poses hard questions for her and makes her confront stereotypes about herself and her wealthier peers.

She ends her story saying she feels more hopeful “that success comes from a mixture of things—not just where you’re from and how society views you, but also what you think and who you are and how much you work for it.” She thinks that she’ll be the “exception,” who will achieve despite her impoverished background.

• What do your students think about the writer’s story? What stands out for them? What surprises them? What angers them? What inspires them?

• The kids in Norwalk feel tremendous pressure to achieve in school. Taking personal responsibility for their achievement is very important. What do your students think about this intense focus on academic success?

• Some of the Norwalk kids thinks some black kids hold themselves back by blaming outside factors instead of just getting down to work. What do your students think of that attitude?

• Is it fair that someone like the writer has to be an “exception” to succeed, while success of the kind she’s talking about is probably the rule for kids from Norwalk?

• Can or should anything be done to level the playing field? Or is it up to each individual in Brownsville to try to become “the exception.”

The writer is trying to figure out why there are such huge discrepancies between her neighborhood and the one in Connecticut. She focuses on immediately observable characteristics. If you discuss this story with your students, you may also want to point out some of the larger historical forces that helped create the gap between Brownsville and Norwalk. For example:

• The suburbs boomed after World War II because of changes that made it much easier to get mortgages. However, the mortgage markets and the housing markets were deliberately discriminatory. Virtually all of the new, federally insured mortgages went to whites. The large suburban developments, like Levittown on Long Island, had deed restrictions that prohibited blacks from moving in. And, while banks were directing huge amounts of money to the segregated suburbs, they were “redlining” the cities: refusing to make loans to blacks who lived there to improve their properties.

• Educational opportunities exploded after WWII, thanks largely to the GI Bill, which paid for college and vocational training. But blacks had been systematically kept out of the armed forces so they had much less access to those benefits. The blacks who did serve in the armed forces often found that segregated educational institutions would not accept them, even with GI Bill benefits.

• Many of the other government programs and regulations that lifted white Americans out of poverty during the Depression and later, such as Social Security and minimum wage laws, were effectively designed to exclude African Americans to the greatest extent possible. For example, domestic service and agricultural labor were excluded (by southern legislators) from many of the provisions of those laws to insure that blacks did not benefit from them.

Thus, the differences between Brownsville and Norwalk, or Brownsville and Levittown, are hardly accidental.
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[Other Teacher Resources]
(NYC-2005-12-15)

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