04/08/2013 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Other People's Children

My great-grandparents came to the United States so that their children could grow up in a land of tolerance, stability and opportunity. Almost all Americans are indebted to some ancestor who had the courage to start over in a new world. We owe it to those ancestors and to our own children to make sure that America remains a nation of possibilities. We're not doing so well.

Most people are committed to pointing their own kids toward a bright future. If we're able, we'll spend a small fortune on educational toys, museum trips, sports equipment and tuition to do just that. To ensure that our kids inherit an America remotely like the one that we inherited, however, we need to start worrying about other people's children too.

Thomas Jefferson spoke of "an aristocracy of talent." The idea is that the most competent, not the most privileged, would rise to positions of power in our society. Obviously that benefits us all.

There is a wide disparity in academic outcomes along family income levels. We know that there is a straight line between academic achievement and income, so diminished educational opportunities are virtually a guarantee of intergenerational poverty.

A gulf in potential opens long before children arrive for the first day of school. Infancy is a time of rapid brain development. Extreme stress and poverty is among the most extreme of stressors, and interferes with that process. Poor kids are 1.3 times more likely to have a learning disability or developmental delay than their more fortunate peers.

Even when the stress of spending the first few years of life in poverty does not impact a child's academic success, prospects are still not as bright. The most high-achieving low-income students do not typically apply to highly selective colleges. Those institutions should be ashamed of not doing a better job of outreach, particularly when it comes to explaining the financial aid process.

The cream is not rising to the top, which is bad for all of us. Limited educational opportunities create a less-informed and active citizenry. And it is well documented that the divide between the richest and poorest among us is increasing, with the middle class consistently losing ground.

This lack of social mobility is making our society less stable. It is also making it less authentic. Think of the things that brought so many new Americans to Ellis Island and that still fill our high school civics textbooks. Think of our national mythology -- hose Horatio Alger heroes who rose from poverty by virtue of their hard work and good character.

Perhaps it's worth mentioning that Horatio Alger descended from people who came over on the Mayflower and was himself a Harvard graduate. It would be disingenuous to claim that children from all backgrounds ever had an equal shot at success. Historically, even kids from modest homes had some chance. That chance inspired a whole lot of hard work that drove the American economy. The industry of individual workers is directly linked to a perception that hard work will get them ahead. Last year, three-quarters of respondents in a Pew poll agreed with the statement: "The rich just get richer while the poor just get poorer." We are at risk of turning from a nation of aspiration into one of resignation.

I have been inside homes where babies didn't even get their diapers changed regularly because parents couldn't afford disposables and didn't have laundry facilities. Do we really think that kids raised in this kind of deprivation are going to show up in school ready to learn?

Those of us who advocate for children living in poverty tend to appeal to a sense of empathy and justice. Perhaps we should be talking more frequently about self-interest. I want the best for my children: good educations, safe communities and the kind of society my great-grandparents crossed an ocean to find. The only way I can get all of that for my kids is to make sure that other people's kids have the same.