In early May, members of the DePaul community gathered for the President’s Spring Book Club, a discussion of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” by Robert D. Putnam. Through a combination of personal stories, research and data, Putnam illuminates the growing divide between rich and poor children in America, arguing that an opportunity gap has made it increasingly difficult for impoverished youth to achieve social mobility. “This book is a way to get into an issue that faces us all,” said the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., president of DePaul.
Faculty and staff were moved by the book. “We always think of education as leveling the playing field, but it’s not that simple,” noted Barbara Rieckhoff (EDU MA ’84), associate professor and director of the educational leadership master’s program in the College of Education. Building on that idea, Heather Easley (CSH ’03), contingent sociology faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, mentioned Putnam’s criticism of the pay-to-play model, a fee-based system for extracurricular activities, which can make it difficult for poor kids to get involved at their local schools.
“Extracurricular activities provide a natural and effective way to provide mentoring and inculcate soft skills, and we already have a dense, nationwide network of coaches, instructors, advisors, and other adults who are trained to help kids,” Putnam writes on page 258. “…. [this is] as close to a magic bullet as we are ever likely to find in the real world of social, and educational, and economic policy. Perversely, as the opportunity gap has widened, we have increasingly excluded poor students from participation in this time-tested system by instituting pay-to-play.”
As Kay Thurn, professor and special assistant to the provost for health initiatives, pointed out, the problem is complex; funding for activities won’t magically appear: “Where will the money come from? Who is going to pay for the trombones and other resources?” The answer, she suggested, is rooted in the book’s title. “St. Vincent de Paul would agree with Putnam that these are our kids,” she said. “We have to stop deflecting responsibility.”
After productive small group discussions, participants tuned in to a Skype conversation with Putnam. He acknowledged that the audience might feel disheartened or depressed after reading the book, but he laid out a case for optimism, action and solutions. “This is not the first time that America has faced the problem of an opportunity gap,” he said, referring to the Gilded Age (roughly 1890s-1910). “Faced with the opportunity gap in 1910, ordinary Americans invented—for the first time in world history—the high school. People said, ‘Kids in this town have a right to a free, four-year high school education.’”
It wasn’t always an easy sell, but over time, cities and towns across the country got on board. “The lesson is that it is possible to change a nation’s trajectory from an ‘I’ society to a ‘we’ society,” Putnam asserted. “Change won’t come from the top; it comes from an up-swelling of interest in the idea that other people’s kids are our kids, too.”
Putnam explained that he intentionally focused on kids in his book because “it might be easy to demonize poor adults but it’s hard to demonize poor kids.” While researching the book, he realized that the quintessentially American idea that each person should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is no longer true. “We are not all getting on the [social mobility] ladder at the same point,” Putnam explained. “[Circumstances] influence where kids get on the ladder.” These circumstances might include parental involvement levels, economic security, school excellence, peers, access to mentors, community support and so on. Climbing up that ladder isn’t as simple as putting your mind to it.
One member of the audience asked Putnam what universities like DePaul can do to ameliorate or alleviate the opportunity gap. “Colleges and universities can do better outreach to get poor kids into higher education, but it’s also critical to help kids get through [the higher education system],” Putnam said. “Opening the door is not enough.” When he thinks about his grandchildren attending college, he’s not worried because “they know the game.” They speak the language of higher education, understand the bureaucracy and have the support of college-educated parents and grandparents. But other students don’t have those same privileges. Colleges and universities need to help all students feel that they belong in their respective institutions of higher learning “because they do,” Putnam stated.
To that end, he shared the story of a current Harvard University student from the Southwest side of Chicago. She wanted to attend college but was told by her high school advisor that she shouldn’t even bother applying to community colleges. “These students face a lot of obstacles before and during college—obstacles that are unrelated to their talent and ability,” Putnam emphasized.
In conclusion, Putnam urged the audience to take action. A recent report, “Closing the Opportunity Gap,” offers a blueprint of solutions across several categories, including families and parenting, early childhood, K-12 education and communities. “Ninety-five percent of Americans believe everyone should have a fair shot in life,” he said. Now, it’s time to turn that belief into reality.