Is the American Dream Dead?

Would you be surprised if I told you that over the past 50 years American children from low-income families are falling farther and farther behind their upper-income peers….in education, household income, and health. During this same period, the neighborhood and communities where these children grow up, all across the country, have become increasingly economically segregated. Today’s young people are much less likely to go to school with or live near students from a socio-economic background vastly different from their own.

So Why Should We Care?

Robert Putnam Webcast at Sarah Lawrence College

Last week, my organization the Westchester Children’s Association (WCA) hosted a web cast of Dr. Robert Putnam (see left) discussing the opportunity gap among America’s children. This is the subject of his latest book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. There’s been lots of talk in recent years about the growing income gap in the US, and Putnam shines a very specific spotlight on how children in the bottom third of the socio-economic continuum (based on parents’ income and education) are facing enormous barriers that are leaving them further behind.

Nicholas Kristoff explored similar ideas in his column in the New York Times, illuminating the overwhelming obstacles poor children must confront just to get by from day to day, and even more so to reach their full potential. These obstacles are not always due to poor decision making; where a child is born and who their parents are, will dictate, to a great extent, the course of that child’s life.

And although race and class are not the same, we must acknowledge that in some places, Westchester being one, the overlap can be substantial.

One of the most daunting and startling statistics presented by Putnam (see graph below) is that family income matters more than academic ability as a predictor of college completion. In other words, high income kids with low test scores have a 30% likelihood of finishing college, while high-scoring low-income kids have only a 29% chance of graduating from college.


Life is not Fair

So should we wipe our hands clean of this and say “the poor will always be with us,” or do we recognize that “The American Dream is evaporating for over 25 million children born in the last generation. It’s economically wasteful, destabilizing to our democracy, and morally unjust”? As Putnam said in his talk and Kristoff mentions in his column, we have evidence-based solutions that can help us reverse this inequality of opportunity, but we lack the political will to implement these solutions

It’s Up to Us, the American People.

Large scale solutions to this growing problem necessitate government involvement or, at the very least, the acknowledgment of its existence from the political powers that be. Only by electing people, at all levels of government, who recognize and care about this opportunity gap, and by holding them accountable to implement sensible investments to address the problem, will we begin to see progress.

At the same time, there are steps that can be taken by local organizations and even by individuals (aside from voting) that can begin to level the playing field for our poor kids. At WCA, we have spearheaded a collective impact initiative called GPS4Kids. Through GPS4Kids, more than 150 organizations and individuals have come together to identify and tackle an issue affecting kids in Westchester County. Our chosen goal is: Every young person will thrive, regardless of race or zip code. The partners in GPS4Kids — including social service organizations, schools, parents, youth, businesses and civic/religious groups — are crafting action plans that will engage many more community stakeholders, measure our level of success and ultimately help kids overcome the unfair odds stacked against them.

Only time will tell if there are enough members of what I like to call “the compassionate majority” who will act and vote with enlightened self-interest to make sure all kids can thrive, or if we as a society are willing to write off the potential of nearly ¼ of the next generation.

As Bette Davis said in the classic movie All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

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