Opportunity Inequality: The Plight of America's Poor Kids

We are at a critical pivot point in terms of the futures of poor kids in America. What happens over the next decade will determine many of their fates and to a certain extent that of the American dream.
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Only in America, land of opportunity
Can a poor boy like me
Can a kid who's washing cars
Take a giant step and reach right up and touch the stars.

Adapted from lyrics to "Only in America"

That may have been true in 1963 when this hit song recorded by Jay and the Americans was released. It has grown less true over time.

And now in 2015, we are at a critical pivot point in terms of the futures of poor kids in America. What happens over the next decade will determine many of their fates and to a certain extent that of the American dream.

Income inequality has been a hot topic for commentary over the past few years and will be a focus for all candidates pursuing the nomination for president during the 2016 primary campaigns. Much less attention, however, has been paid to opportunity inequality which is an antecedent condition that has a significant impact on income inequality.

Thanks to Harvard professor Robert Putnam's new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, that could be about to change. Putnam is the author of two previous books, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, that have stimulated and influenced public discussion and debate in this 21st century.

We hope the same occurs because of his new work. Lord knows that poor kids need not only talk but also all the help that they can get to break out of the cycle of opportunity inequality that victimizes them in this day and age.

Putnam's thesis is simple and straightforward: Over the past several decades an "opportunity gap" has grown between kids from "have" and "have not" backgrounds. That gap appears to continue to widen.

As might be expected, Putnam draws upon substantial research to support his conclusions. More importantly, he tells stories that dramatically illustrate his point drawing upon his experience growing up in Port Clinton, Ohio in the 1950s where virtually everyone regardless of their socio-economic class made progress and did better than their parents. He starkly contrasts that to the experiences of kids of lesser means from Port Clinton today and other places such as Bend, Oregon, Atlanta, Georgia and Orange County, California who start out behind the eight ball and are more than likely to stay there.

Space does not permit elaborating on these stories here. But, they warrant reading by anyone who is seriously interested in getting behind the numbers to understand the human dimension of the dilemma confronting poor kids today.

From the data standpoint, here are some of the key findings distilled from Putnam's summary and analysis of the relevant quantitative research:

  • From about 1910 to 1970 the distribution of income in the United States became more equal. In fact, from 1945 to 1975, the incomes of the bottom fifth of earners grew faster than that of the top fifth of earners.
  • From 1967 to 2011, even within each major racial/ethnic group (i.e., white, black and latino) income inequality rose at the same substantial rate.
  • Between 1989 and 2013, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent while the net worth of high school-educated households fell by 17 percent.
  • From 2009 to 2012, the real incomes of the top 1 percent of American families went up by 31 percent compared to .5 percent for the bottom 99 percent.

This "almost unprecedented growth in inequality" has led to economic and educational segregation. According to Putnam, "More and more families live in uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor neighborhoods... fewer and fewer of us live in mixed or moderate income neighborhoods." Putnam also notes that "Even when poor and wealthier schoolchildren live in the same school district, they are increasingly likely to attend separate and unequal schools."

Putnam asserts this income inequality and segregation has and will have a dramatic effect on upward social mobility and opportunity equality for kids. He comments though that "conventional indicators of social mobility are invariably three to four decades out of date" and thus the available "rear view mirror" data does not show this definitively yet.

This is the reason that he takes what we would call an "anthropological approach" and looks directly at what has been happening to "poorer" kids over the past three decades -- in terms of the families into which they are born, their schooling and parenting and the communities in which they live. Based upon this assessment, he concludes,

Whatever changes we can detect in these areas will foreshadow changes in social mobility - which distressingly according to the evidence I describe in this book, seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American dream.

Putnam's prediction might be called an early warning signal -- except it is coming three quarters of the way into the game -- and is probably too late to impact the lives of many of those kids who have been caught in the "opportunity gap" over the past 20 to 30 years. It is not too late, however, to put measures in place to help this current and future generations of "poor kids" who as Putnam so aptly puts it, "... through no fault of their own, are less prepared by their families, their schools, and their communities to develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids."

Putnam proposes a number of corrective measures in his final chapter. They include:

  • Family Structure: Use of contraception to facilitate "childbearing by design" rather than "childbearing by default." Economic revival for low income workers. Increasing family income by $3,000 during a child's first five years through government cash transfers.
  • Child Development and Parenting: More workplace flexibility and parental leave time during the first year of a child's live. Well designed, center-based early childhood education
  • Schools: Public subsidized mixed income housing. Moving kids to better schools. Dedicating more money per student to school districts with high poverty. Putting and paying higher quality teachers to work in these school districts.
  • Community: Charter schools run by community-based organizations. Implementation of mentoring programs. Neighborhood regeneration.

Each and all of the measures outlined by Putnam deserve and demand consideration as do others. We proposed a number of measures ourselves in a series of four blogs that we posted on education, schools, families and communities last summer.

There are more than enough good ideas to address the problems confronting poor kids and there are compelling economic, moral and ethical reasons for doing so. What is needed now is the courage and compassion to bring this issue out of the shadows and into the bright light of the public square.

We opened this blog with a quote from the hit 1963 recording of "Only in America". It is a little known fact that the original version of that song recorded by the popular black group, The Drifters, was never released.

It was about racism and had the following chorus:

Only in America, land of opportunity, can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me. Only in America, where they preach the Golden Rule, will they start to march when my kids go to school.

In 2015, poor kids in America no longer have to sit in the back of the bus. They just can't afford a ticket to get on it. And, no one marches where they go to school any more, because they're not in the same schools with the more well-off kids.

Our poor kids deserve better. They deserve a fighting chance coming out of the starting gate.

We can give them that chance by designing and implementing holistic programs to close the "opportunity gap". By doing so, we will empower those kids to pursue the American dream -- as Jay and the Americans sang it more than one-half a century ago, "To take a giant step and reach right up and touch the stars."

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