This Political Season, Put Labeling On Lesson Plan

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Posted: Oct 14, 2008 12:01 AM
This Political Season, Put Labeling On Lesson Plan

The working class. Hey, I qualify. Sign me up.

The middle class. That's the course my teenager is taking between P.E. and chemistry, right?

The idle rich. OK, think Paris Hilton. But even Paris and sister Nicky have had to earn their keep to be able to afford the lifestyle they're accustomed to. Are they idle? Not quite.

Stereotypes, labels, cliches, neatly packaged descriptions -- welcome to another campaign season in which social and economic characterizations are freely tossed about by the candidates, political pundits, members of the media and, excuse me, regular working stiffs.

Here's a perfect example. After hearing a politician for the umpteenth time describe himself as being a "friend of the working class," it made me wonder to whom he was referring. Perhaps me? My wife? The teenager down the street who mows lawns? After all, the operative word seemed to be "work," and a heck of a lot of us do just that.

To be sure, this is part of the language of money, and certain hot-button words mean different things to different people. Which leads to my concern: Our children -- even if they are only remotely following election news -- are hearing the same sound bites and watching the same debate theatrics as mom and dad. What are the youngsters thinking when they hear labels and terms such as "middle class," "upper class," "blue collar," "soccer moms" and, now, "hockey moms"? What do these words mean to them? Are they wondering what "class" they belong to? And why is the politician using the particular labeling or generalization?

In thinking about those questions, I started by researching online and opening my dictionary. Many of these words can be traced back to Europe's class society before finding their way to America.

Do these definitions of the old world fit today? Not really.

For example, my American Heritage dictionary defines middle class as "members of society occupying an intermediate social and economic position between the laboring classes and those who are wealthy in land and money."

The federal government doesn't provide much clarity either. Sure, the government defines an official poverty line at $10,400 for an individual and $21,200 for a family of four. In addition, the nation's median income is about $52,000, meaning half the population earns less than that, and half earns more.

Still, income guidelines are hard to pin down when it comes to middle-class and upper-class households.

That's why Leslie Linfield of the Institute for Financial Literacy in Portland, Maine, urges parents to tread carefully when tossing around economic labels and characterizations with their children.

"Wealth and status are actually states of mind," Linfield said.

"No one is going to stand up and declare, 'I am poor,' just as few are truly arrogant enough to declare, 'I am rich.' Children need to be taught that even those who might earn lower wages can do miraculous things through the power of sound financial management, just as those who can earn high salaries can fritter those earnings away with foolish spending.

It doesn't matter what class you belong to as long as you make sure you are making ends meet and saving for a rainy day."

Elisabeth Donati, who operates Camp Millionaire for youngsters in Santa Barbara, Calif., suggests parents encourage their children to think critically, read between the lines and be accepting of diverse opinions.

Pepper your son or daughter with open-ended questions about what they think the politician means and whom he or she is trying to reach.

"Too often, we tell a child what to think or what they should make of something," Donati said. "This is a mistake."

Finally, I asked Patricia Palmer, field director for the Center for Economic Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, about some of the messages that teachers are trying to instill in students regarding work and money. She mentioned a lesson in which students are asked a series of true-false questions to develop a profile of a millionaire.

"It's incredibly instructive," said Palmer. "There are statements like, 'How many hours a week a millionaire works, and are they likely to drive a Cadillac or Ford?' At the end, students have a profile of what a millionaire values or practices in general. Not an idle rich person, at least on the way up. The lesson makes it very evident that hard work and conservative consumer behavior can have positive results for anyone."

As for a lesson plan about hockey moms, my guess is that one will be added for the next election season.