Watching Bristol Palin's teen pregnancy PSA the other day and reading reactions to it (including Bitch's own Kelsey Wallace), I was reminded of a question that I've been turning over in my mind lately, namely who has the authority/credibility/legitimacy to speak to issues of class and privilege? While I think Palin's spot fails as a warning against teen pregnancy, it does offer a frank (if unintended) admission of privilege. Palin acknowledges that her status as the daughter of a former governor and vice-presidential candidate affords her the resources to raise her child comfortably, but it's tone-deaf "If you're poor, think twice before getting knocked up." message betrays a profound lack of understanding about the drivers of teen pregnancy and the role socioeconomic context plays. Does the Candies Foundation (the entity behind Palin's spot) really believe that the decision to have a child as a teen or to engage in unprotected sex that could lead to pregnancy is one that is made on the basis of economic rationality*? Really?
The classist cluelessness of the PSA echos the theme in two news items I set aside from last week. The first, from NPR, reports the discontinuation of a pilot program in New York that paid low-income students for school attendance. The program was shown not to affect academic achievement for elementary and middle school students. The second, from TIME, highlights the burgeoning popularity of what the magazine refers to as "frugality experiments," namely well-to-do white folks choosing to limit some aspect of their consumption (i.e., eating on $1/day, not buying new clothing, etc.) for a predetermined period of time, documenting their efforts and, in many cases, scoring a sweet book deal detailing their epiphanies during the process. You say frugality experiment, I say poverty theatre (well-intentioned or otherwise) or, more broadly, stuntertainment, (and it seems as if the posters at Jezebel would agree).
But like the Palin PSA, the pilot program and these forays into self-imposed privation betray a lack of understanding of the context of poverty. Money is only one part of a multivariate equation. And understanding and addressing the plethora of other variables requires an insider knowledge that those of us who have never experienced poverty and its attendant consequences and conditions lack. But how does our limited information coupled with lack of enfranchisement of those in the know (doubtful that Candie's consulted teen mothers who weren't gubernatorial offspring) affect the development of a meaningful (and badly-needed) dialogue on class issues in America? What are the rules of the game? Is any perspective grounded in privilege confined to paternalism (Palin, paying for school attendance), amateur immersive journalism (frugality experiments) or armchair anthropology critiques (this article)? Given that the socioeconomic dimension of coming of age in America in the 21st century is something I'm committing myself to explore (and in a more meaningful way than simply tsk-tsing and tossing the classist pejorative around), this question is much more than a thought experiment to me.
* One of the most thought-provoking discussions around teen pregnancy among low-income young women than I've stumbled across is contained in The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns.