It's even harder for poor children to succeed than it was 50 years ago because the gap has widened between haves and have-nots, a Harvard University professor told Quad-City-area civic leaders on Wednesday.
Robert D. Putnam, author of "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," brought five years of research, plenty of anecdotes and statistics to bolster his theory to an event hosted by United Way of the Quad-Cities Area at the iWireless Center, Moline.
"Fixing the problem depends on people exactly like you," he said.
Putnam began his speech referring to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, a mostly white working-class community of 5,000 on Lake Erie. When he graduated high school in 1959, he said half of the graduates were the first in their families to achieve that level of education and 80 percent were destined to "do better than their parents" regardless of whether they lived on the "wrong" or "right" side of the tracks.
He went on to graduate from Harvard University, both of his children have graduated from Harvard and all of his grandchildren are either in prestigious colleges or almost there. That's not the case for a fellow classmate he called "Joe," who entered the local workforce.
Then recession hit Port Clinton as factories closed and fishing dried up because of pollution on Lake Erie.
"It's the classic Rust Belt disaster," Putnam said of his hometown.
Joe's children never had steady jobs, never married and yet still had children of their own. One of Joe's granddaughters was abused by boyfriends, turned to drugs and got a job as a "model."
Putnam argues that success today is not about how smart you are or how hard you work. He said it depends what side of town you come from.
For instance, 74 percent of rich children who excel in school will complete a four-year college degree versus 30 percent of poor, successful students. Rich children who are awful in school are still 10 times more likely to complete a college degree than their poorer counterparts.
There have always been rich and poor people, he said. The middle class, he said, has evaporated as more and more are becoming poor.
Today, more than 50 percent of Port Clinton's children are poor. Through his research, Putnam found similar experiences in towns across America.
Rich children typically come from households with both parents, where, for instance, the family eats dinner together, which, Putnam said, is important to a child's maturity. In poor households, a single parent is more common, and the family almost never eats together, he said.
Rich children, on average, spend 45 more minutes with mom and dad than poor kids, and factors such as test scores tend to improve as a result, he said.
Unlike the 1950s, when both rich and poor children had almost equal access to extracurricular activities through taxpayer support for public education, today that is not the case, Putnam said. Parents are largely on their own to fund sports, drama and other activities — for instance, football equipment and lessons can cost $800 per child per year.
This automatically leaves poor children at a disadvantage; a single-parent family with two children making a household income of $16,000 will not spend 10 percent of its income on football. And as for waivers, Putnam said no child wants to walk around with a giant "P" on his forehead for "poor."
Extracurricular activities teach "soft skills" such as problem solving and teamwork that poor children aren't learning to become successful in life, he said.
"It's fundamentally unfair," Putnam said.
Putnam was careful not to paint the 1950s as too rosy, saying there was racial segregation and that progress has been made on that front. He said there is economic segregation within racial groups.
"Most of the growth in gaps are not between racial groups, they are within racial groups," he said. "It’s social class and not just race that matters."
The prize-winning author of 14 books who has consulted for the past three American presidents suggested the title of his book, "Our Kids," could offer a solution.
He said in the 1950s, when people referred to "our kids," they were referring to the children in the community, like when someone proposed building a pool, it was for the high school and not someone's backyard. Today, people seem to be referring only to their biological children when they say "our kids."
"Nowadays, they say, 'That's someone else's kids' and 'Let someone else worry about them,'" Putnam said. "That's the underlying change. We don't know about their lives, and that creates such a great divide."