Like many of us, I was steeped in the idea of the American Dream when I grew up—that anybody, with hard work and diligence, and a little luck—could do anything they wanted. I still want to believe, even now. Yet the evidence that there is an “opportunity gap” is growing all the time. The hard reality is that these days children from families with little education have an extremely hard time climbing out of the lowest economic strata.
As hard as it is to acknowledge this truth, we need to talk about it. That’s why I’m excited that Bob Putnam will be speaking at our Annual Meeting this year. Bob’s latest book is called Our Kids. In it, he analyzes the drastic differences in opportunity for those who come from families with means—and most importantly, with good educations—and families without. What has happened that those who are born into families without a lot of education have very little chance of rising above their circumstances? Bob doesn’t offer all the answers, but he points to changes in families, parenting, schools, religion and breadth of community networks as factors contributing to the issue. The way he puts the entire story together is compelling and troubling.
On every factor he points out the divide between well-educated families and poorly-educated families. As always, I’m drawn by the discussion of social capital. Says Bob, “…like financial capital and human capital, social capital is distributed unevenly, and … differences in social connections contribute to the youth opportunity gap.”
And… “Contrary to romanticized images of close-knit communal life among the poor, lower-class Americans today, especially if they are nonwhite, tend to be socially isolated, even from their neighbors.” We know about and talk almost every day about the importance of social capital. This is a reminder that we cannot let up in our work to strengthen our community connections.
I also find the hard data around educational levels compelling. Just to share one data point of many in his book, Bob points out the importance of family background in college graduation. For children from the top economic quartile in the country (that is, with parents who are highly educated), thirty-percent of those children with the lowest test scores in 8th grade are still likely to graduate from college. At the same time, only 29% of high test scoring children from the lowest economic quartile will end up graduating from college. Something is wrong with that.
I’ve long been a fan of Bob’s work—from his early writings about social capital, to his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone, to Better Together, about how to rebuild social capital, to his book about religion in America, American Grace. A big part of what I like about Bob’s work is that he doesn’t point fingers, but he looks for answers that make sense and that are backed up by data. That’s why he is respected by the most conservative and most liberal politicians in the country.
Our meeting is on September 17th—whether you can come or not, I cannot recommend more highly that you pick up and read Bob’s book, Our Kids. To be clear, some may read the book and come out depressed. I choose to read the book as a call to action. We can do better—and we must.