America's creed of equal opportunity is under threat. Some candidates for President tap into fears and want to build walls. Others point fingers at Wall Street and the top 1 percent. All are wondering whether the American Dream can be restored. What is clear is that the American Dream is slipping away for too many.
Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam threw down the gauntlet in his groundbreaking book, Our Kids, when he marshaled overwhelming evidence that for first time in American history children from low-income families are not likely to do better than their parents. A decade earlier, Putnam warned the country of the dangers of "Bowling Alone," noting the decline in many of our civic habits -- volunteering, trust in each other, joining organizations -- that had helped knit our communities and country together in previous generations.
We see the effects of such trends all around us. Communities are fraying under historically low levels of social and institutional trust; access to good schools and safe neighborhoods are too dependent on whether you live on the right side of the tracks; and poor kids, even those who are high achievers, are disadvantaged in every step of their journey toward productive adulthood. One wonders whether we will continue to foster a society of "my kids" and "their kids" or whether we will embrace Putnam's challenge to make them "our kids."
Many encouraging solutions are emerging in local communities and are embraced from the right, left and center of American politics. Groups such as Opportunity Nation will have more to say about this in the coming weeks and months. But one answer to give young people equal access to the American Dream and knit our communities back together may be found in an untapped resource -- the millions of older Americans who are living longer and eager to give back in their later years. An "encore" of national service by Americans ages 50 and up could dramatically help boost the life outcomes of vulnerable youth and the health and wellness of themselves.
Deeply depressed following the death of her son, Carleaner McKinney found herself at age 73 getting out of bed at noon, eating and watching television in a cycle of despair. Encouraged by her family, McKinney put her experience as a mother of four and grandmother of 23 to work four days a week helping low-income children prepare for kindergarten. Of the 182 children she and her fellow Jumpstart Foster Grandparents corps members mentored for a year, 96 percent showed gains in language and literacy skills and more than half gained skills on one or more developmental levels. What's more, by keeping up with the active preschoolers, McKinney's own health improved as she went from using a walker to walking without assistance.
McKinney's story is far from unique and surveys show that at least 45 million of the more than 100 million Americans over 50 are eager to serve their communities and country in their later years. Most worry they are leaving the world in worse condition than they inherited and want to make it right.
In a new report that could become a template for any Presidential candidate, Governor, Mayor or civic activist in any community, we challenge the country to engage 50+ Americans in six months or more of service to help vulnerable children and youth climb the ladders of economic and social mobility.
Our ideas include using a service year exchange to connect older Americans to opportunities through nonprofits and agencies to help disadvantaged youth; expanding AmeriCorps, VISTA and the Peace Corps so more 50+ Americans can serve; establishing an intergenerational service corps so that older and young Americans can serve side-by-side to meet public needs; enabling encore service members to earn Silver Scholarships transferable to a child or grandchild; creating new funding options to pay the living stipends through tax-advantaged savings vehicles or beneficial adjustments to Social Security; place-based strategies that engage 50+ Americans in collective impact models to boost youth outcomes; and social innovation funds where private resources are leveraged and government only pays for programs that are successful.
Imagine the impact millions of 50+ Americans could have as tutors and mentors to enhance school readiness and success, increase high school graduation rates and college prep, and helping children and youth develop the social, emotional and academic skills they need to navigate an increasingly complex and economically competitive world.
The stakes are high and contrasts stark. How we treat the aging -- by further marshaling their talents or letting many linger into an aging purposelessness -- and how we support vulnerable children or let them fend for themselves -- will be signposts of our country's values. It's time for encore service to bring older and younger generations together to rekindle the true spirit of our nation. And it's time for our candidates to support such a call to action.
John Bridgeland is CEO, Civic; Vice Chair of the Service Year Alliance; and former Director, White House Domestic Policy Council. Shirley Sagawa is Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; CEO, Service Year Alliance; and former Managing Director, Corporation for National and Community Service. They co-authored the report, An Encore of Service: Experienced Americans Helping Vulnerable Youth, found at: http://encore.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/service_reportv6.pdf
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