How the American Dream gets priced out of children's reach | Chalkboard Project

How the American Dream gets priced out of children's reach

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 Kristy Alberty

On June 9, author Robert Putnam shared the lessons he learned from his research for his recent novel, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”

Robert Putnam, professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, is also the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community and has been a consultant on social issues to Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton. His presentations were sponsored in part by Chalkboard Project and organized by SAGE (Seniors Advocates for Generational Equity).

Chalkboard Project staff, board members, and guests had a deeper discussion with Professor Putnam on June 10.

One key point he made is that more children are growing up in isolation. Today’s societal pressures: under-paid parents unable to focus significantly on their children’s needs; movements toward privatizing after school activities; and less involvement with church or civic groups (entities outside of the family) have resulted in more children growing up alone, unable to create trust relationships with others or develop ownership of the American Dream.

Professor Putnam noted that we often mistakenly point the finger at schools as the source of students’ inability to succeed. “While schools are not the source of the problem,” says Putnam” what we haven’t been able to do is to use our public school system well to help lower-class students find a successful path forward.”

One example he gave really hit home with me.

My years in marching band created some of my fondest high school memories. It taught me so much about myself, about so-called “stick-to-it-iveness”, and more. Therefore, when my daughter entered high school, I was happy to see her enthused about joining band.

But she came home dismayed to learn that we would have to pay for her to participate and was worried that it would be out of reach (because it was for some of her classmates). The fee was substantial, something my parents didn’t face when I was going to school. Fortunately for us, I could pay it, while murmuring “…times sure have changed.” I assumed it was necessary due to dwindling school funds, then thought no more about it. And, I didn’t have to think about it, because my college-graduate lifestyle and income made the problem go away.

However, for many children who want to gain a positive school experience and explore music, team sports, and extra-curricular activities, these “pay to play” fees create a substantial obstacle. In our lifetime, our society has constructed a wall, or a wire fence if you will, where only more-affluent children enjoy an enriching school life and the rest can peer thru the fence. We deprive children of not only the activity, but the positive influence of a trained adult mentor outside the home—a coach who offers encouragement, affirmation, and structure. Ask many “successful” people who made a difference in their lives, and you will find it wasn’t always a teacher or a parent.

Putnam reminded us these extra-curricular activities were historically free, and were created specifically to foster emotional and intellectual growth in all children. While marching band or playing football may not lead to career options or skills, the so-called soft skills that children gain—teamwork, discipline, interdependence, empowerment, and self-respect—are invaluable.

While Putnam maintains he is not trying to find all the answers, he is meeting with policy makers and speaking across the country “striving to give oxygen” to more discussions about growing inequities for children in today’s society. And yet, despite the heart-wrenching stories of children profiled in his book, and the studies pointing to increasingly low chances that all children will have an equal chance to succeed and prosper in this country, Putnam reports that he feels extremely hopeful about the future.

“I’m a deeply optimistic American,” he said. Thanks to both my gratitude for after-school programs and to my newly opened-eyes to the dire situations we have built for today’s children, I want to create that optimism, too.

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