|Going Over A Cliff|
|Wednesday, June 27 2012 09:44|
“The most important moral problem facing America today.” That’s what Robert Putnam calls the inequality plaguing our society.
It was not always so. As recently as the 1960s we were becoming more equal. But by the next decade, inequality among social classes had increased again and is even worse today.
“We are about to go over a cliff in terms of social mobility,” laments Putnam. A Harvard professor and author of the notable book Bowling Alone, he has studied up close what is happening to children in lower-income groups.
This researcher deliberately looked only at white kids in order to exclude from his study questions of race. His findings help explain why these children are falling so far behind in opportunities for fulfilled lives.
Putnam has found that a number of factors block these children in their early years.
“Most working class white kids don’t have a dad,” he observes. Of course, they have biological fathers but these men spend little or no time with their offspring.
If their mothers are married, they are unlikely to marry outside their social class. And, if they are not well educated, these women are not likely to read to their children.
Most give too little of what Putnam dubs “Good Night Moon” time to their kids. He takes the title of a well-known children’s book as a symbol of quality time spent on the very young.
The researcher cites many other lacks that mark the young lives of economically deprived children. They have fewer friends in school; they are less likely to be elected student officers; they do not play sports nearly as much as middle-class kids and, if they do, they are not likely to be chosen captain.
In general, they do not belong to organizations like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. Nor do many of them get to take ballet lessons.
The discovery that surprised me most concerns church. (I have a special interest in religion and its role in our society.) These kids are much less likely to attend church than their age peers in the middle and upper classes.
Robert Putnam sees this lack as regrettable because it deprives them of important social contacts. His prior research into churchgoing shows it to be especially valuable for promoting happiness among individuals and society at large.
Putnam also regrets the loss of community support for deprived children. They no longer have ready access to people who can serve as substitute grandparents, aunts, or cousins. The kids remain too much on their own without the adult backing so vital to their well-being.
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have shown enough interest in his findings to have invited Putnam to confer with them at the White House. Both regret what is happening to children, and have wondered how best to respond to this formidable social problem.
It grieves me in later life to discover that the road traveled by so many young people has become increasingly difficult, even dangerous. Would that those running for high offices made this a top priority.
For a long time Americans have thought of our country as the land of equal opportunity. If that was once true, it no longer holds. But the solutions to this problem are far from obvious. I wish I had one.
As for Bob Putnam, he believes that some progress is possible through early childhood education and child welfare initiatives. I applaud these resources, but I will continue hoping for smart and committed fellow citizens to come up with other inspired approaches.