Personal is Political Week: Grandpa Pete and the New Economy

That's my Grandpa Pete, about 1.5 years before he died

As an instructor, I have to be very cognizant of boundaries with my students, particularly since I’ve had kids, since everyone is understandably interested in my adorable children’s every activity (what, no?).

Still, becoming a parent has also made me even more aware of the political nature of private life, which has led to greater integration between my personal and professional selves, not less.

So, while I don’t go out for drinks with my students (even when they ask), or tell them about an argument with my husband or a particularly long day with the kids, I also don’t try to hide the fact that who I am as a person helps to shape who I am as a social worker, and an advocate for social justice.

In that spirit, this week is The Personal is Political Week on Classroom to Capitol. This week’s three posts all feature something personal about my life: my family, my parenting, and my faith, with some reflections about how those pieces of my identity influence my social work.

In addition to comments about any of these posts, I’d also love to hear from other instructors about what you disclose, and how, and how you negotiate boundaries so that students are protected from messy entanglements, while not artificially maintaining too severe a distance, so as to preclude the working relationships we know make a difference in social work education. I’d never claim to have found that perfect balance, but I’m always interested in learning!

My Grandpa Pete died in August 2010. He was 95 years old, and, while I miss him very much, he was ready to die, and so there’s a great deal of peace with the loss.

Somewhat oddly, perhaps, I’ve been thinking about him a lot over the past month, as I work on the Kansas poverty report (forthcoming from KACAP!). Thinking about our current economy, and those at risk for poverty within it, have prompted a lot of reflection on who Grandpa Pete was, what he accomplished, and how much the context of his times influenced his life options.

See, my Grandpa Pete grew up on a “farm” in rural Missouri that never really produced a lot of anything. Most of the time, the family sharecropped. He didn’t graduate from high school; the family story is that he quit because his younger sister needed money for shoes if she was to stay in school. He got a job in Kansas City, eventually working his entire career at Phillips Petroleum. I’m proud of how hard he worked, of his mangled knuckles that are testament to his physical labor, and of he and my Grandma’s sense of frugality, that I know still lives in me (no, we are never getting cable).

But I also know that jobs that pay a “family wage” (my Grandma mostly stayed home with my mom and her sister) and came with health insurance and full pension benefits, mostly aren’t available to people without high school diplomas today.

Before he died, Grandpa proudly pointed out to me the banks where he had money deposited (FDIC limits, you know), and I’ve thought of the satisfaction in his voice as I pour over statistics about how less-educated workers fare today.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not taking anything away from Grandpa Pete and what he did to say that it’s wrong not to live in an economy that makes that possible today. People who are born into poverty, as he was, should still have a real chance at economic mobility. Instead, more than 42% of those raised in the bottom income quintile today stay there as adults. And those who are low income find it almost impossible to accumulate the assets that brought my Grandpa so much comfort in his later life (if not, admittedly, a new pair of pants–there’s the frugality!); 50% of Kansans with incomes below $24,800 are “asset poor.”

Like so many of us, Grandpa Pete experienced the opportunities embedded within his world as though they were invisible. He believed that hard work, and my Grandma’s nagging about saving money, deserve the credit for his ability to leave behind the persistent want of his childhood.

And, indeed, if our economy still worked for working people, that is how it should work: opportunities for those of different skill levels to contribute to economic productivity and to be compensated fairly for that effort, in a system that shelters people from the greatest risks: disability, illness, temporary unemployment, and, in my Grandpa’s case, living more than 30 years after retirement. If the “playing field” were truly level, then people could look back on their lives as races well-run, so to speak, instead of being ever-aware of the forces that constrain their chances, from childhood through later life.

I miss his grin, and his not-so-funny “jokes”, and his advice about crop rotation.

And I like to consider my efforts to make our economy fairer, for everyone, part of my tribute to him: Grandpa Pete, you made it, and other people should be able to, too.

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