Yawning Opportunity Gap for Our Kids Because We Don’t View Them All As Ours

November 27, 2016

A recently-published book by Professor Robert Putnam warns that the American Dream is in crisis. We’ve had ample evidence of the symptoms for some time. But the fundamental issues Putnam raises seem to me more relevant than ever.

Other research has already told us that children who grow up in low-income families tend to remain low-income as adults, who then have low-income children, etc. Conversely, children who grow up in well-off families generally remain well-off. And so forth.

We’ve also had research showing that whom you’re born to has become more determinative in the last 30 or 40 years — a major point for Putnam.

He focuses on two related reasons. First, the “opportunity gap,” i.e., disparities in the resources parents and communities invest in children, has grown.

And second, we no longer think of everybody’s children as “our kids” because families have become increasingly segregated by income, education, neighborhood and related measures.

Thus, well-off families invest in their own children and what their own children will directly benefit from, e.g., the schools they attend. But they neither know much nor care much about the opportunities for children in the depressed neighborhoods across town.

We’re on our way to becoming a society where class is hereditary, he told a recent gathering (and those of us virtually present). The graphs he showed confirmed the basis for the alarm bells he’s trying to set off.

He referred to most of them as “scissors graphs” because the lines tracking the developmental opportunities children have grow further and further apart over time. Likewise factors he views as related, e.g., two parents in the home.

Now, the opportunities he dwells on don’t altogether explain why children born to poor and near-poor parents tend to remain stuck in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

Those resources their parents don’t have include money for food, decent, stable housing in a safe neighborhood, high-quality child care (unless they’re among the shrinking number for whom it’s subsidized), diapers …. Well, I needn’t go on with this inventory.

We know from other research that food insecurity, homelessness or even just moving from one home to another and then another and the stress parents inevitably communicate when they’re struggling with such things all put children at a disadvantage in the classroom.

We know that low-income children often don’t benefit from high-quality early education. Lack of resources, parental and public, mean that inequalities begin at “the starting gate,” as the Economic Policy Institute entitles its report on the problem.

This, I think, is why Putnam says that schools aren’t to blame for the widening income gap, though they don’t narrow it either. But he cites a related factor that, in his view, is — the unequal opportunities children have to participate in extracurricular activities.

Playing organized sports or in a band or orchestra, he says, teaches teamwork and develops what’s now often called grit — the will to keep working at something, despite setbacks and frustrations.

All children used to have opportunities of this sort. They now cost, on average, $800 a year, he says. That’s nothing, of course, for well-off parents, but more than some low-income parents can afford.

Even low-income children who beat the odds and not only graduate from high school, but go on to college don’t overcome the opportunity gap. Only 29% who scored high on standardized tests graduate, while 74% of high-income students do.

The difference here, Putnam says, is mostly not tuition costs or the formidable loans that all but well-off students must incur to gain a degree.

It’s rather a reflection of the investments parents made much earlier — the time they spent interacting with their infants and toddlers, the dinners that brought the whole family together, the religious services they attended, etc.

What this seems to mean is that the low-income students are in some way not prepared for college, test scores notwithstanding. I find this baffling.

Even if what Putnam calls our “pay to play” extracurricular system denied them an opportunity develop grit, they surely have it or they wouldn’t have learned what those test scores reflect, given the well-known problems of the schools they’re likely to have attended.

More baffling is the way he slides over the link between early opportunities children have — or don’t — and the color of their skin, a point the Washington Post‘s reviewer touched on.

If the time and money parents have to invest in their children is correlated to their income, then race discrimination, both past and present, deserves far more attention.

Putanm tends to use parental education, rather than income per se in his analyses — this, it seems, because he’s most concerned about the divide between social classes.

We’ve always had large racial disparities in college-level degrees. But even blacks who’ve graduated from college generally get paid less than whites, as the Economic Policy Institute’s analyses show.

If relatively more low-income children have only a mother to provide the interactions he views as so critical, it’s partly because most low-income women (like their better-off counterparts) want to marry reliable breadwinners.

So the disadvantages black men suffer in our labor market, e.g., higher unemployment rates, lower wages, help explain why a high percent of black mothers are single.

If low-income black children don’t always have fathers investing quality time in them, it’s also in part because our criminal justice system puts a disproportionate number of black men behind bars, thus giving them an additional disadvantage when they’re released.

And if communities consist of class-based enclaves, that’s partly because of discriminatory zoning and other housing policies — and discriminatory practices by lenders, real estate agents and landlords.

Putnam’s nevertheless right in saying that policy choices have widened the opportunity gap — and that policy choices can narrow it. Those he recommends are themselves fairly narrow.

This perhaps is because, as he stresses, he’s trying to start a national conversation about a problem that’s got no simple, quick fixes. But it’s also because he’s focused on children, especially the very young — and on what could conceivably prove politically feasible.

So nothing new here, as Jill Lepore’s account in The New Yorker says. But we don’t need new as much as do. And, as she also (sort of) says, we can’t count on much do from our federal policymakers.

The book is nevertheless timely — more so than I think Putnam expected — because it calls on us to consider whom we view as our kids and, more broadly, as members of our community.