By Kathleen Wagner, philanthropic advisor for The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta
I can’t be alone in hating my piano lessons as a child. My teacher’s house smelled funny. She was a close-talker who wanted me to learn faster than I felt I could. She wanted me to go home and practice piano. All I wanted to do was spend my time outside. I wanted to play “hit-the-tennis-ball-against-the-garage”, a game my sisters and I invented because of sheer boredom.
But here’s the thing that may seem insignificant: we had a garage to hit a tennis ball against. We had a racket to hit the ball with. We had parents that would help us replace the broken windows in the garage door when we missed the garage door itself. Looking back at my childhood, my family had a lot of things that were easy to take for granted, both in terms of material possessions and personal support systems.
It’s not quite the same for all families in America. In his newest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert D. Putnam reminds us that the times are changing. Putnam, a leading author and professor of public policy at Harvard University, helps us to begin examining the gaps in income inequality and upward mobility and how they are vital in determining the attainability (or lack thereof) in achieving the American Dream for children and adolescents today. Some kids don’t have a dad around to help replace the broken glass window, or neighbors who give piano lessons, or supportive adults around encouraging them to work hard in school and read books.
Here’s the thing – Americans have always wanted equality of opportunity and for kids, no matter where they’re from or what their family looks like, to have a chance at life improvement. But the American landscape is not shaping up to be this “melting pot” as intended. Classes stick together in neighborhoods, schools, marriage and even in the workplace. Upward mobility becomes an unattainable “dream” to those who grew up in poverty or without social and societal supports. Wealthier families are spending more on their children than ever—and lower income families are falling further and further behind.
In Our Kids, Putnam notes the “extraordinary role that social class has come to play in our patterns of achievement, accompanied by a hardening of class boundaries over the past half-century that makes it exceptionally difficult for those from classes below to rise to classes above.” What factors determine where different individuals end up in life? Putnam explains that upbringing plays a huge part in determining your child’s life-trajectory.
Maybe we can take a page out of Putnam’s book and get more involved with all of “our kids.” Find out what opportunities there are to get involved with your community so that you are part of a support system. Putnam would likely remind us to continue putting a strong focus on all kids – so that we’re not only improving opportunities for our own children, but our communities as a whole.
Join The Community Foundation and the Atlanta History Center on Thursday, April 30th to hear a lecture from Robert D. Putnam on Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Click here to register.