Photo credits, Jay Williams, Georgeann Johnson

“All is for the best in the best of possible worlds.”― Voltaire, “Candide”

A self confessed news junkie, I am often told by friends they avoid the news as depressing. Why don’t I? I reply that I read about solutions to the problems. Is this my Pollyanna head-in-the-sand escape artistry? Am I, like Candide, insisting all is for the best as horrors flash across my TV screen?

While I am mulling this over, a post from Vox blings into my mailbox. “How low social mobility hurts children — and what we need to do about it,” by Danielle Kurtzleben, Vox March 16, 2015; an interview with Robert Putnam’s about his new book, “Our Kids.”

No Pollyanna, Putnam is even darker than Voltaire since he reports facts rather than using satirical overkill. The study began with a clue from a graduate student four years ago. She objected that some of the rosy statistics about the nations’s youth were skewed. It was not like that in my neighborhood, she told Putnam, citing her experience in a low income family.

Putnam followed the bread crumbs and was shocked at what he discovered. Poverty matters hugely in more than the obvious—food, housing, schools.

“Social capital,” what kids get outside of school, determines their chances of being middle class—watching Mom make a grocery list, getting a ride to practice for the swim or debate team, building a snowman with Dad.

The evidence is that “our kids” are growing up with vastly unequal social capital. Putnam shows that this contributes mightily to the inequality of opportunity that is strangling our democracy. He begs us to “look what’s happening to the kids in the lower parts of our society. And how that is damaging our future.”

“Do we really want to live in this kind of country?” Putnam asks, “a country in which it isn’t even approximately true that everyone has a fair start in life? And it’s getting worse and worse.”

The interview ends with Putnam’s plea for change.

Danielle Kurtzleben:
There are some heartbreaking tales in “Our Kids”. I’m sure a lot of people will read this book and ask themselves how they can change this. What would you tell someone who’s more affluent who picks up this book and wants to change things?

Robert Putnam:
Chapter 6 [titled “What is to be done?”] is aimed at exactly that person. We can join others to press for important public policy changes, and that includes stuff like early childhood education, where the evidence is overwhelming that providing early childhood education makes a huge difference in the physiological brain development of kids. And that puts [poorer kids] behind the eight ball when they’re still one or two or three years old.

So if I’m talking to an ordinary fellow citizen — and that’s what I’m doing in the book — you should work with your friends and neighbors and push hard for having universal early childhood education.”

He quotes directly from “Our Kids:”
“If you’re concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you can do right now: close this book. Visit your school superintendent. Better yet, take a friend with you. And ask if your school has a pay-to-play policy [for extracurricular activities]. Explain that waivers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, because they force kids to wear a virtual yellow star, saying, ‘I’m so poor my parent’s can’t afford the regular fee.’ Explain that everyone in the school will be better off if anyone in the school can be on the team or in the band. Insist that pay-to-play be ended. And while you’re there ask if there are things you can do to help the local schools serve poor kids more effectively, both in the classroom and outside.”

With that, I out down my pen—ok, my iPad—and resolve to act. Use my child development training to make a difference. However I can. Wherever I can. As soon as I can.

Adios, Pollyanna.
Get thee behind me, Candide.

No more passive listening to the news.

Links to the Vox article: