Our Kids: Could We Just Listen to Robert Putnam's Plea to America?

04/14/2015 10:19 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Rich kids have airbags. Poor kids do not and so they fail. That's the harsh reality that Harvard Professor Robert Putman describes in his new book, Our Kids. The "airbag" description is powerful and frustratingly accurate. This week's new bipartisan ESEA bill does not restore funding for after school programs. They leave that decision to the states. Clearly, Congress is not listening to Putnam's plea. We are all hurt by kids failing, whatever our moral proclivities; pure self-interest - if that is the driver -- dictates that we should care about America's youth.

The problem, as Putman almost evangelically explained at the Aspen Institute, is that there is an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor children as they progress through every aspect of life. The problem starts early. His graphs - whether about income levels, family stability, social support systems - reinforce this conclusion. It is a divide, he argues, that is damaging economically, politically and morally. It is deeper and more pervasive than it has been since the Teddy Roosevelt era.

Envision this situation Putnam describes: Two kids are arrested for drug possession far from home. The rich kid's family may be upset but they will hire the best lawyer, and find and then pay for the best rehab facility; they will work to insure that the criminal record evaporates. For the poor kid, there are no such resources and the system will crank along; the kid may end up in court-mandated rehab or worse, likely without parental/familial support to cushion the fall and financially support the recovery. No airbag present.

Putnam observes that our society has changed; we have a growing separation in how kids across the economic spectrum engage with each other. This is an end product of the growing individuation in America documented in his earlier work, Bowling Alone. Bottom line: poor kids become isolated kids.

Putman's point is that these are all our kids because we will all do better if there are fewer poor kids. The economy will do better if poor kids have jobs, and the jobs of the future will require post-secondary education. If money is what drives the engine, pay attention to low-income children. Politically, this should not be a red and blue state issue; we all benefit if more people contribute to our tax base, vote and participate in communities. Helping kids means more voters. Finally, we have a moral imperative to protect those less privileged; that's how we perceive ourselves as a nation.

The ease with which we can observe the "airbag" problem is inversely correlated to the degree of difficulty in finding workable solutions. Remedies to decades' old concerns regarding poverty range from those that require long-term, almost Herculean efforts and those that may produce effects in the short term. No solution will work if there is not the will for change - the will to protect "our kids." Whether we have that "will" remains for me an open issue.

Consider three of Putman's solutions: (1) we need effective, quality early childhood intervention that focuses on both young children and the adults in their lives; (2) we need for those who work at minimum wage to receive an hourly rate that does not leave them in poverty; and (3) we need to end "pay to play" in high schools where the programs like athletics, art and music are only offered to those able to pay.

Here's why these are worthy suggestions but getting traction on any of them will be a hard lift:

First, we will never get needed attention on early childhood education if we do not enhance the respect early childhood educators receive. The "rich" families would way prefer to see their sons and daughters become college or law school professors than early childhood educators. Let's be real. What if we made the highest paid jobs those that involved the youngest children? Link dollars to respect.

Next, the "pay to play" problem is devastating. The "extras" in high school are not extra; in fact they are as important for kids as academics. The sad thing is that they may be even more important for our most vulnerable students who may find their pathway to academics through athletics and the arts with quality coaches, amazing mentors, teamwork and appreciation of the value of delayed gratification.

But, the reasons for paying to play need to be disentangled from the consequences. True, individuals are more isolated and families stick to their own. But this is closer to the real reason: School districts are increasingly strapped for dollars, and in prioritizing, they eliminate the programs that are not tested in school. With fewer dollars to go around, "extras" go - thus the ESEA omission just noted.

In America, we favor quick results and resolving the achievement gap is a several decade-long effort. We are so used to "quickness" with email and Twitter and other social media that we get distracted easily and lose focus and drive. We need to adopt what we are trying in healthcare: a focus on preventative care and wellness, even if the benefits are not experienced for decades. That's a tough but essential ask.

We can come up with other strategies not yet mentioned: give Institute attendees some tangible representation of the achievement gap -like a replica of an airbag - to serve as ongoing reminders of what some children have and others lack. And, ask attendees to return to the Institute to engage in a shared conversation about how to find solutions. My guess: real progress would be made; not just in words, but in deeds.

Caveat: unless we take the need to care for those less privileged seriously, not a whole lot will change. Not even an amazing book alters that the sad truth.