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Review: ‘Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’: What happened to ‘our’ kids? 

Statistic after disheartening statistic, and life after unlucky life, point to the same conclusion: For millions of kids, there is now very little hope of reaching the middle class. Many of "Our Kids" revelations will not be news to anyone whose daily work — emergency room nurses, public defenders, teachers — brings them into contact with the full range of Berkshire County’s economic diversity.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

By Robert Putnam,

Simon & Schuster, 2015

Matt — the young person referred to in this review — is a composite of two young men, both bright, both low income, neither of whom is named Matt.

West Stockbridge — When he was eight years old, my father spent one summer night peering out the window of a laundry truck at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. That month the 80c admission price was too much to spare, so Dad watched the lights and rides while his father made deliveries. In the years that followed, Dad completed free public elementary, middle, high school and college in Brooklyn, where his aptitude for languages was nurtured. Gradually my grandfather came to earn a good living. Dad became the first in his family to attend college, and he went on to graduate at the top of the St. John’s Law School class of 1958. He had no debt to pay off as he entered into a long, illustrious career in legal academia.

Fast forward to 2015, and a young man named Matt stacking vegetables at Price Chopper. Several years earlier, staff at his high school had noticed that there was more to this quiet boy than met the eye, despite his frequent absences. They saw him reading a tattered copy of The Lord of the Rings. They were impressed by his vocabulary and sophisticated literary references. It was clearly not smarts but life circumstances keeping Matt out of Honors and Advanced Placement classes. Matt’s parents held low-wage jobs, and lived 30 miles from school. His parents had recently divorced, and he had undependable transportation to school. Multiple family members struggled with addiction, and Matt often arrived at school without having eaten breakfast because there was no food in the house.

education gap

In the course of my work in schools and as a grant writer for youth-serving nonprofits over the past decade, I have frequently suspected that the upward trajectory of my father’s economic status would be unlikely, if not impossible, for someone like Matt today. Having only my own observations to work from, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the causes, and I thought that the chasm between the lives of our young haves and have-nots in South Berkshire county was unique to resort regions like ours.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam and published in March by Simon & Schuster, set me straight, confirming my suspicions about changes in upward mobility, but placing my dad and Matt in a much broader context. With his new book, Putnam, also the author of Bowling Alone and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, examines national trends over the past five decades in the realms of family structure, parenting styles, schools, and community supports, and through those lenses contrasts the life hopes of wealthy and poor young adults from around the country. Statistic after disheartening statistic, and life after unlucky life, point to the same conclusion: For millions of kids, there is now very little hope of reaching the middle class.

Robert Putnam
Robert Putnam

Many of Our Kids’ revelations will not be news to anyone whose daily work — emergency room nurses, public defenders, teachers — brings them into contact with the full range of Berkshire County’s economic diversity. But I’d wager that even those people would be dismayed to learn just how wide the opportunity gap between the offspring of educated, middle class parents and those of less-educated, lower income parents has become in our lifetime.

For Our Kids, Putnam and his research partner Jennifer Silva conducted 107 interviews with parents and their young adult sons and daughters, and also drew on extensive quantitative evidence. He compared families living in places like Lower Merion Township and Kensington, both outside of Philadelphia, eleven miles apart. The median household income in Lower Merion is four times greater than in Kensington. Kensington has one of the country’s highest rates of disconnected 16-24 year olds (young adults who are neither in school nor working) at 30 percent, and Lower Merion has one of the lowest, at 3 percent.

Not surprisingly, the two sisters from Lower Merion enjoyed the extensive, tangible and intangible benefits common to upper-middle-class kids everywhere these days. When Eleanor was sixteen and diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, her mother hired consultants to work with her on learning strategies, and had the third floor of their house remodeled into office space, to minimize distractions for Eleanor as she did her schoolwork. Both Eleanor and her sister had nannies to bring them to afterschool activities, and private SAT tutors. Madeline, the younger sister, took a writing course at the University of Pennsylvania to get her writing up to competitive college-entrance speed. The instructor became an invaluable mentor, and the sisters also received informal mentoring from youth pastors at their church.

Other sources of mentoring and support came through their businesswoman mother’s wide range of “weak ties,” a name sociologists have given to one of the invisible advantages enjoyed by the offspring of better-educated, higher-earning parents. Weak ties are “casual acquaintances in disparate social niches (psychologists, professors, business executives, friends of the family, friends of friends).” These connections provide a huge leg up for kids; they are the relationships that often get high school students into college and college students into the summer internships that turn into jobs. However, “….people lower in the socioeconomic hierarchy lack such useful weak ties and instead rely heavily on family and neighbors for social support.” In poor neighborhoods, family and neighbors have their own struggles to worry about.

Kensington, Pennsylvania, used to be the sort of place where mothers wouldn’t hesitate to discipline Johnny from down the block and march him home. The kids in Kensington were offered free activities at the local youth club, and the Police Athletic League and others sponsored teams. The local Catholic Church’s youth group was a source of respected mentors. Nowadays the church is shuttered, spending on parks and recreation has fallen over 80 percent since 1970, and the neighbors are more likely to be offering drugs than coaching. This is how Lisa, one young adult profiled in Our Kids, became an addict, and why her sister Amy dropped out of school and got pregnant at 16.

Lisa’s mother, Molly, unlike Eleanor and Madeline’s mother, did not have the resources or personal agency to help her daughters. “Molly…was unsuccessful, in part because their dads were destroyed by addiction, in part because of her own debilitating illness and depression, and in part because of the pervasive breakdown of the Kensington neighborhood.” The structures that used to buffer low-income young people through the perils of adolescence and young adulthood — safe, tight-knit communities, access to free/low cost extracurricular activities and respected religious institutions and their mentoring relationships, economic stability, intact nuclear families, a community-wide ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ mentality — are no longer in place for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Putnam Data

Our public elementary and secondary education systems, originally envisioned as an equalizing force among kids of different backgrounds, are now segregated more by income than race. A prosperous Latino couple interviewed in Our Kids selected their Orange County, California, house based on the stellar reputation of Troy High School, where no one race makes up the majority of the student population, and which Newsweek ranked as the 47th best high school in the country in 2013. Not surprisingly, the rate of students eligible for free and reduced lunch at Troy is only 14 percent. At Santa Ana High School, where the lower-income Orange County students went, the poverty rate is 84 percent, and the two young interviewees laughed when they were asked about its academics, asking sarcastically, “What’s ‘academics’?”

Most of us reading this are blessed not to suffer Kensington-level poverty or Santa Ana school quality. We do not have neighboring towns whose wealth and poverty rates are totally reversed (although nearby Williamstown and North Adams are pretty close; the median household income in Williamstown was 60 percent higher than in North Adams in 2012.) But within our three towns and within our three schools — Muddy Brook Elementary, Monument Valley Middle, and Monument Mountain High — the income disparities have been widening for decades. We don’t have rich and poor adjacent schools, we have children from the two ends of the economic spectrum in one building.

Zeroing on our youngest students, there is an especially alarming statistic with which to set the local scene: the percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch at Muddy Brook has gone up 55 percent since 2007, from 20 percent to 36 percent. Differences in academic achievement between poor and wealthy kids are well documented and nearly ubiquitous around the country. We are no exception. Only 17 percent of Muddy Brook’s low-income 3rd graders passed the 2014 MCAS reading test, compared to 56 percent of the class overall. This early gap does not bode well for what will happen a few years down the road, when these students are divided onto different ‘tracks.’

Putnam and his researchers discovered that, “Who you go to school with matters a lot.” I would also add, based on my experience as a non-Advanced Placement English high school teacher, who you go to class with matters a lot. Some bright, low-income students told me they avoided advanced classes because they didn’t want to associate with the rich kids. I looked at my two or three strong readers and writers and saw selective, four-year colleges with generous scholarships in their futures. That is not what they saw for themselves. They had no idea what a selective, four-year college looked like. Why would they? No one in their families had attended one, and they did not have the experience of college-educated “weak ties” to draw on, either. By the time I was seventeen, I had spent time with friends and cousins at Amherst College, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Boston College.

A low-income, verbally gifted kid like Matt, faced with his range of obstacles and without college-educated role models, might still end up enrolling in college. (He says he is spending this year saving up for tuition to a state college.) But as Our Kids points out, “Enrolling in college is one thing, but getting a degree is quite another.” College completion rates are very low in less selective, more affordable schools. The four year graduation rate at Westfield State University is 44 percent, at the University of Massachusetts in Boston it is 15 percent, and at Berkshire Community College it is 25 percent, with only 16 percent of graduates going on to pursue a four-year degree. Among the large chunk of students who must take non-credit, remedial classes in order to handle college work, the graduation rate is even lower.

Which brings me to the single most demoralizing fact of Our Kids: low-scoring, high-income students are now slightly more likely to get a college degree than high-scoring, low-income students. In other words, innate talent and potential do not matter as much as wealth. Putnam calls this statistic, “hard to square with the idea at the heart of the American Dream: equality of opportunity.”

family-matters-the-economics-of-the-family-and-human-capital-in-the-united-states-14-638

Putnam puts a lot of stress on the value of school-based extracurricular activities in Our Kids. He argues, rightly, in my mind, that outside-the-academic-classroom activities like sports, chorus, band, art and clubs develop, “strong work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and a sense of civic engagement.” Participation in these opportunities, whether at school or in the community, “matters for upward mobility.” Also important for high school students who do not experience success in traditional academic settings, these opportunities and the teachers and coaches who provide them are often what keep them from dropping out of school. But as we know all too well, these “extras” are the first items on the chopping block when cuts are made, and there is now often a fee for participating in things like afterschool sports. Low-income children are eligible for waivers, but I would guess that many are not willing to take them and thus wear, as Putnam puts it, “the virtual yellow star” of poverty.

If your child’s participation in soccer depends on your ability to come up with $100, your ability to keep your child engaged during the 10 weeks of summer depends on your ability to come up with as much as $10,000. A resourceful and well-resourced mom looking to cultivate her 9- and 10-year-old sons’ interests and talents in the months of July and August could find camps that offer drama, science, rock-climbing, sailing, etiquette, horseback riding, waterskiing or tennis, among other things. Day camps range in price from $200 to $500/week. Sleepover camp ranges from about $750 to $1,500/week. The most affordable way of keeping her nine- and ten-year-olds busy all summer (between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) would cost $4,000 total. A full summer of sleepaway camp for both kids would be more than $15,000. This fun, enriching, memorable way of spending a childhood summer is obviously out of reach for a family earning $45,000 or $30,000 per year.

In high school, the costs multiply. “Extras” might include a therapist for one kid, a month-long summer trip to Thailand after junior year for another, one-on-one SAT and French tutoring for both, and soccer and swim tournament travel. By the time these two hypothetical sons have graduated from high school today, the parents might have spent as much as $200,000 per child on the things that both gave them a leg up and have helped them navigate our pervasive drug/alcohol culture, get into an Ivy League school, and make useful connections for the future.

As a grant writer I helped Berkshire Hills Regional School District get the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, an afterschool and summer program targeting higher needs elementary and middle students, which offers academic, arts and other enrichment programs, as well as transportation home at 5 p.m. The program was originally envisioned for 50 children, but it met such a pressing need that they ended up securing additional funding through the Berkshire United Way to serve the more than 200 who sign up each session. Parents routinely thank staff for giving their children a safe, enriching place to go after school instead of an empty house and TV set. Project Connection is among the most affordable summer options. This grant program runs out in December, and its continuation is dependent on continued United Way funding and a different state grant.

Putnam warns us, “If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children is not good.” How do we turn the boat around? Many of Putnam’s recommendations in his last chapter, “What is to be done?” are dependent on government action, like expanding tax credits and increasing funding for schools. Some are dependent on bringing about monumental cultural shifts, such as embracing and expanding vocational training rather than pushing college for everyone. (The subject of my next essay.)

One of Putnam’s suggestions for you and me is to march into your local school and demand that they do away with the “pay to play” system for sports. I disagree with this idea. Money has to come from somewhere, so if you really want to do away with Pay to Play, march into school and offer to sponsor a team next year. His other suggestion, however, I wholeheartedly endorse. Become a mentor.

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When I started a mentoring program ten years ago, I was struck by how insecure we are as adults. We don’t believe we have anything valuable to share — apart from material things — with a stranger. You might already be an informal mentor, dispensing advice to your favorite nephew or the kind kid who makes your coffee, or nurturing a student’s or young friend’s athletic, musical or artistic talent.

Peter/Bruce was the first mentor/mentee match I made, and they cemented their relationship with basketball and a willingness to learn from each other. Today, Peter lives in Connecticut with his wife and young son. He says, “As I went through life events, Bruce’s friendship, companionship and presence were gifts I never expected to receive. When I moved away Bruce continued to form friendships with men and women who would be positive role models for him. I’m proud to say that Bruce has continued his education and is about to graduate from college with a bachelors degree, the first in his family to do so.” If you are interested in mentoring, call or visit Railroad Street Youth Project, located on Bridge Street.

Summer is coming up, along with long, empty days for the kids who can’t afford camp. If you would like to contribute financially to closing the opportunity gap, look below for ideas. The Crocus Fund has made camp possible for 25 children over the past two years. If you are signing up your own child for camp, and cost is not a concern for you, consider sponsoring the full participation of another child. Please feel free to include other ideas in the comments.

Mentoring:

Contact Sonam at Railroad Street Youth Project, 528-2475, about becoming a mentor. sonam@rsyp.org

Contribute to:

Crocus Fund, Sheela Clary, 2 Water St., Housatonic, MA 01236

Flying Cloud Institute, 731 New Marlboro Sandisfield Rd, New Marlborough, MA 01230

Flying Deer Nature Center, 5 Abode Rd., New Lebanon, NY 12125

Project Connection, through Berkshire Hills Regional School District, Attention: Tom Kelly, 313 Monument Valley Rd., Great Barrington, MA 01230

Railroad Street Youth Project, 60 Bridge St., Great Barrington, MA 01230

YMCA Camp Hi Rock, 162 East St., Mt Washington, MA 01258

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