I just finished reading Our Kids; The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam (2015, Simon and Schuster). Throughout the book Putnam does a masterful job of explicating the differences between the lives of lower income children and adults and middle class children and adults. First, Putnam is careful to demonstrate that the differences do not track along racial, ethnic or cultural lines. Although there are certainly more minority and immigrant families within the lower income group, the lives of minority and immigrant families in the middle class are more similar to other middle class families than they are similar to the lives of minority and immigrant families in the low-income group.

But the differences are startling. From birth lower income children have fewer language interactions with parents and family members resulting in slower and less robust language development. This of course leads to lower school achievement. Children and families in the low-income group tend to live with a great deal more stress from a variety of different sources. It may come from the neighborhood in which they live, it may come as result of parents having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, or it could be as a result of the complex family relationships often seen in the low income population. In any event, research shows that stress impedes brain development, so again many of these children will achieve less in school.

Without trying to summarize a whole book in a few paragraphs Putnum also notes that folks in the lower income group are typically less able to intervene or help on behalf of their children in school or to help navigate the maze of getting into and succeeding at college. Children in this group are also less likely to have adult mentors, nor do their parents have adult contacts that can help the children get started in career or business. Finally children in the lower income group are less likely to participate in extra curricular activities. There is a great deal of research indicating that children who do participate do better in school and life, but most schools now require a fee to participate that lower income families can’t afford.

There is much more to this work than I have described here, including the statistical research, and the first hand stories of families from across income groups. The pictures painted are simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. But within these data I see the beginnings of a clear path to change. Putnam notes a few of them but what follows is also my expansion of Putnam’s ideas.

First, we have to abandon the miserly notion that money won’t help. All of the suggestions below will cost money. If we are generous enough as a nation to address this issue here is where we would begin.

  • High quality, free, pre-school for all low income 3 and 4 year olds. This isn’t a panacea but it could begin to address the gaps in language. Current Headstart programs don’t serve enough children. If these programs were full day and had affiliated day care it might allow parents to work and ease some financial pressures as well
  • Smaller class sizes and more para-professionals to insure students’ needs are met.
  • A high quality curriculum that includes music, art, PE and recess for all children. Middle class children often get these benefits while poorer children do not, leaving them farther behind.
  • Development of schools as community centers to provide after school opportunities for children, parent education, and healthcare.
  • Significantly more counselors, psychologists, ELL teachers and translators in schools. This could help with stress issues or help more kids find their way into appropriate colleges. The psychologists would help expedite special Ed placements and help with mental health issues while the translators and ELL teaches would ease the transition for second language students and help their parents communicate with school officials.
  • An end of “pay to play” in extra curricular activities (This comes directly from Putnam). However, if we really believe that these kinds of team/ group activities are so crucial why aren’t they a part of the curriculum? I would recommend that every student should be engaged with some sort of activity for the last period of the school day.
  • Mentorship programs for kids in all high schools. These could be from the community or from local colleges and universities. I think it is particularly important that members of the immigrant communities attending universities and colleges mentor members of their communitiea in the high schools.
  • An expansion of the earned income credit. Again this is directly from Putnam. There is research evidence that even relative small amounts of money (several thousand dollars annually) can make a big difference in the stress level of a family and hence the achievement of their children. Expanding the earned income credit could do this.
  • A national program to insure that schools are physically adequate and safe. Many children still go to school in buildings that most of us would find unacceptable (Jonathan Kozol has thoroughly documented this). Why on earth do we as nation tolerate this?

This where reading Putnam has led me to believe we need to go. It certainly isn’t about better test scores or better teachers, it’s about creating a level playing field for everyone. There may well be other things that need to be added to this list or other ways to start. But the ideas reformers are suggesting are far from the answer because they don’t provide kids with the kind of life experiences and platforms from which they can grow.

We can begin to do this if we want to. Are we generous enough as a nation,  do we care enough about other people’s kids, and can we see how important it is for our country to do it?


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  1. Brian Cambourne Says:

    Hi Steve,
    Our nation, like yours has ceased being “a generous nation”. I’m not sure why, but it’s worrisome


    • searchingforagrainofsanity Says:

      I don’t have much of a megaphone or a soapbox but that’s why I wanted to shout the question and confront it directly. Are we generous and enough and do we care enough? Sadly, I think the answer from most may be “no!”



  2. janet Lin Says:

    I hope Bill Gates has read Putnam


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