Bridging the Gap Between the Two Americas

It is always dangerous for me to visit bookstores. As a passionate reader I am reminded about all the books I would like to read, and then when I make my selections, it costs me an arm and a leg. 

But my trip to the bookstore this time was deliberate as I wanted to get the new book by Robert Putnam, the renowned Harvard sociologist. It was Putnam, and his article in 1994, then follow-up book, "Bowling Alone" (2000) that framed the notion of social capital that has been so helpful to our work at CLASS. 

In keeping with his commentating on life in America, Putnam' new book is title, "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis." (Simon Schuster, 2015). For any advocate interested in kids and families, this is a must read. 

Putnam starts the book by going back to his boyhood home in Port Clinton, OH, and exploring what had become of his classmates some 55 years later.  His point of initiation is that although their were differences in income, by and large, people knew and engaged together.  He then counter compares this with recent findings of the huge gaps and disparities In America today. In a section titled, "Toward Two Americas," he statistically shows the changes that are apparent today. He states: "In the quarter century between 1979 and 2005, after tax income (adjusted for inflation) grew by $900 a year for the bottom fifth of American households, by $8,700 a year for the middle fifth, and by $745,000 a year for the top 1 percent of households." From 2009 to 2012 the real income of the top 1 percent of American families rose 31 percent, while the real incomes of the bottom 99 percent barely budged!

In this disparity he found that income trends were especially divergent among people with different levels of education.  He displays some of this educational divide with a variety of graphs which couldn't be more stark in looking at the wealth gap, median age of mothers at first birth, unmarried births, children living in single parent families, employment of mothers, imprisonment rate and the like. It is sobering stuff.

In fact, the imprisonment rate alone has skyrocketed since 1980 from 100/100,000, which is where it has been since 1920 to its present 500/100,000. He states that having a dad in prison is one of the most common themes in the lives of poor kids. 

But it is this educational divide that took me aback. The dichotomy and then stark disparity between people who had the opportunity for advanced education, and those that didn't is hugely telling as it relates to all the important things for families and kids. 

Yet, we live in times where advanced education, for many (maybe most) is becoming economically out of reach; and for those who take the plunge, end up in insurmountable debt. It is ironic that you can buy a car at little or even no interest, yet to get a college loan you pay upwards of 8, 10, even 12 percent. 

And what about for those that college is not possible, for whatever reason. Certainly this impacts many people with disabilities, or other people with issues that might compromise academic proficiency. Will these people continue to be put in situations that make life harder, or less satisfying? 

These are the important questions in front of us as a society, and for our communities overall. And thanks to Putnam (and other social commentators) we have the information to set the stage for the important changes that must happen.