*** Our Kids by Robert Putnam

For the past five years, I have helped seniors at the local high school get into college and find funding for it. The 12 students I’ve worked with so far attend a school that sits in an affluent neighborhood but draws from both rich and poor families, almost accurately divided by the proverbial train tracks. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how these students differ from the rich kids attending the same school, and why they need to expand so much more effort to get the chance to attend the same universities. (And it’s not only that they need to spend hours and hours filling out scholarship applications!)

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis exactly captures the problem. Written by Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, it tackles the difficult issue of the lack of opportunities for low-income children in a society that has become bifurcated. It was not the case for the author’s high school cohort (he graduated in 1959), which he shows achieved high levels of success regardless of the parents’ social class.

The book alternates between personal stories of upper midle class and working class students of late high school and early-college age and chilling statistics, illustrated by graphs that illustrate the growing gap between rich and poor, along all kinds of dimensions from economic achievement to social integration (of course, considering the author’s interest), to unemployment, and family structure. It makes a great case of a society that is not only highly unequal, but where economic mobility has slowed to an alarming low.
Hope can be found in the last chapter, where the author outlines practical solutions to the problem, including less housing segregation, better childcare and schools and, no suprise for me: formal and informal mentors. If you are concerned with opportunities for low-income children, this book will provide both context and suggestions for direct involvement in a solution.
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