Every year the Aspen Ideas Festival gathers leading thinkers from around the globe to discuss the latest ideas of what makes a good society. This year, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam along with his team, presented new data about a starkly widening opportunity gap, as well as some unexpected education and lifestyle trends associated with it.
Most people are broadly aware of the wealth divide between families who live in poverty and those who come from a culture of affluence. The correlation between classes that have less money and their restricted access to educational and work opportunities is generally understood and implicitly accepted as natural.
However, Putnam’s new findings add a psychological dimension to current knowledge of inequality. More than race and poverty, he examines the increasing gap in class and social mobility, which stem from attitude differences of lower strata parents and higher strata parents. These behavioral trends imply disturbing implications for the future.
In a recent New York Times article (The Opportunity Gap), David Brooks discusses some of Putnam’s principle findings. Looking back at the investments that parents make in their children’s earliest years, Brooks highlights the amount of time affluent parents invest in their children’s futures through activities such as reading to them when they are toddlers, explaining their jobs to them, and cheering them on during extracurricular activities.
Then there is the monetary investment that affluent parents make in “enrichment activities.” Compared to children of less-affluent parents, children of wealthy parents are much more likely to partake in tutoring, after-school sports, activities such as music and community service, and religious services that their parents are readily willing to invest in.
In lower strata communities, more children are born out of wedlock. Single parents are unable to find the time and resources to make similar investments in their children’s futures, and their children feel more pessimistic, detached, and uninspired to push themselves to their full potential.
Naturally, children who feel limited by their parents and major social institutions have a diminished sense of purpose and responsibility. It is no wonder that as a consequence, these children’s test scores lag and more doors begin to close for them.
However, as Putnam and Brooks both indicate, if we want more leadership that is representative of our entire society, it is important that we encourage individuals from all rungs of society to reach their highest potential. This means that reformers may need to embrace some uncomfortable changes to ensure that less-affluent kids have a better shot at making it to the top.
While Brooks points to policies such as banning childrearing before marriage and tax cuts for the wealthy, certain educationalists feel that he neglects to address central changes that need to be enacted in the public school systems. For example, some suggest greater implementation of “no excuse” learning models that place high expectations and ambitious academics on low income students, access to digital learning opportunities, performance-based funding that is driven towards kids with more risk factors, and more structural support systems built into communities that need them.
Certainly it will require a combination of sociopolitical changes as well as education reform to truly address the bleak prospects for bottom-quartile children. Putnam’s new data provides an ominous prediction of society’s future if no changes are enacted. So unless we want today’s opportunity gap to become tomorrow’s ambition gap and develop into a continual leadership gap, maybe we ought to start brainstorming some creative solutions.