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All kids are "our" kids

Harvard educator Robert Putman walks into the Twin Ports crowd to discuss the disparity between America's wealthy and poor children. At the podium is Holly Sampson, president of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. Putnam is also the author of bestselling book, 'Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.' That work spurred the Community Foundation to develop one of its signature programs, 'Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project.' (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)1 / 3
Kevin Skwira-Brown asks how race factors into the growing disparity between the rich and poor. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)2 / 3
The research for Robert Putnam's book was highlighted in the 2015 annual celebration of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.3 / 3

In his column this week Bill Gronseth, Duluth's superintendent of schools, says that "'Goodnight Moon' time" is important. "Goodnight Moon" time is when adults interact with their children, especially in reading, but it can be any time devoted to interacting with a child. Gronseth was one of about 400 who attended last week's Duluth-Superior Community Foundation's annual celebration, which featured noted Harvard educator Robert D. Putman.

I also attended the event and was troubled by Putnam's findings. He said that the "'Goodnight Moon' time" gap was widening between rich and poor kids. As he spoke to the Twin Ports crowd about his new book, "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," he presented key findings from research chronicling the growing gap and the consequences of what he describes as the disappearing American middle class.

Putnam projected slides of charts and graphs, one of which showed a correlation between a lack of sit-down family dinners and lower participation in school-based extracurricular activities. Without time at the dinner table, parents are less likely to talk to their kids and encourage them to be engaged.

Putman said that in our parents' or grandparents' generation, when they spoke about "our kids" they meant all the kids in a community. More and more, when people say "our kids" they mean their own biological children. And they don't really care about other people's children.

Putman explained that American high schools were started by people who wanted to help "our" kids. Even if families could afford to send their children to private high schools, they saw the value of providing a free public high school for everyone. Sports were free, there was no "pay to play" and many more people attended church regularly. It wasn't the religion that Putman highlighted as important, but the chance for children to be part of a community and have another adult looking out for them.

Putnam said some of the reasons for the gap between the poor and the wealthy include:

  • Collapse of the working class family.
  • Economic insecurity among poor families.
  • Inability to afford enrichment activities such as summer camp, music lessons and sports.
  • Frayed "social safety net" in working class neighborhoods. (Everyone used to know their neighbors and look out for each other.)
  • Fewer children participate in extracurricular activities.

Putnam writes in his book about a classmate, Frank, who didn't know he was poor until after he grew up. Frank's mother stayed home and made sure the family had home-cooked meals and time to talk. She also made sure the Frank took piano lessons. Frank went on to college, and though his parents didn't know anything about college, Frank's pastor helped him navigate the application and financial aid process.

Putnam said that policy changes would encourage stable and caring families. That, he said, would best be done by boosting the wages for low-income workers and with prison reform, as well as development of high-quality early childhood education for all incomes. Teachers should be paid more in high-poverty schools and children should have more intensive mentoring as well as access to community colleges and apprenticeships.

Putman said that caring about all children isn't just altruistic, it makes economic sense.

The whole country would be better off economically if all children were invested in. We are losing the opportunity of these children becoming productive workers with innovative ideas.

"Poor kids are not just somebody else's kids," he said. "They are our kids, too."

Naomi Yaeger is editor of the Budgeteer contact her at nyaeger@duluthbudgeteer.com or (218) 723-5226.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at www.DuluthDailyPhoto.com.

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