Whose Responsibility is it to Close the Opportunity Gap?

This article is part one of a series exploring the opportunity gap that many minority communities face in the United States. 

I will never forget a story my Grandma told me growing up; a story about a day at the beach in Rowayton, Connecticut in 1945.  It was summertime, and the children had just been let out of school. My then 12-year-old Grandma, Carol Elizabeth Greene, was in her bathing suit and ready for a swim.  She sprinted down to the water at full speed, submerged herself in its cool crests and was just about to dive under when she heard a call beckon from further up the beach.  Another child’s mother was frantically screaming and scrambling; young Carol heard the woman order her child to “Get out of that water right now.”  My Grandma couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with that water.  Were there sharks or jelly fish? Perhaps some sea-bearing snapping turtles?  

But as Carol turned her eyes towards this manic mother, she realized what was wrong.  Amidst the sea of starch white faces and blonde manes bobbing up and down in the ocean around her, she noticed that five of these faces were ‘not like the others’.  Five African American children were just dipping their toes in at the water’s edge.  Could it be, my Grandma wondered, that the source of this mother’s frenzy was these children?   

Heartbreakingly, her suspicions were correct. For many, it’s shocking to think that something like this could have occurred as late as 1945; but even more dismaying is the notion that such scenes were quite common at the time.  And yet the reality is that even today we live in a society wrought with inequality. Many assume that Americans of all ethnicities should, at this point, have access to the justice system, equally funded schools, health services and housing; no service provider, police officer or real estate agent would dare discriminate. But unfortunately, twenty-first century America still bears fragments of inequality from its past that lead to the disproportional treatment of many individuals, and in particular, minority groups.  

There are many complex and interwoven reasons for this, and I will only discuss several of them. To begin with, the wealth gap in America is staggering.  Wealthier American families have a median net worth 70 times that of low-income families; this is the widest gap American economists have seen in 30 years. Many low-income families find it nearly impossible to get ahead, while upper income families are becoming wealthier and wealthier each year. Furthermore, the wealth disparity between whites and minorities is currently at the highest level in 30 years. As of 2010, white households were 13 times wealthier than African American households and 10 times wealthier than Hispanic households. 

Such figures make evident the great wealth gap between minority groups and whites and also indicate the profound effect that years of racial and social inequality have had on their livelihood. Statistic after statistic, one must wonder why minority groups are struggling to become economically prosperous.  In this ‘land of opportunity,’ could it be that a chance to advance economically is what minority groups are lacking the most? 

...could it be that a chance to advance economically is what minority groups are lacking the most?

It is important to note the enormous impact that decades of poverty has had on minority communities. Poor African American and Hispanic families often live in heavily segregated communities with higher crime rates, astronomical housing costs, and generally poorer public services. Consequently, children living in these areas often attend ill equipped and underfunded school systems where adequate preparation for college is not a given. These unfortunate conditions do little to advance one’s economic standing; rather, the lack of opportunity in these communities perpetuates a seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty.  To take steps towards closing the opportunity gap, reform is necessary in four key areas: education, the criminal justice system, housing, and the family.

For Christians who are concerned about poverty, there’s a common viewpoint that sees two main, but separate, ways to address inequality: through the church or the state.  On one side, some contend that it is the government’s responsibility to close the opportunity gap, suggesting that the Church’s impact doesn’t go further than its Sunday morning service. On the other side, some people of faith contend that if the government would “just stay out of the way”, then the Church could adequately care for the poor. 

However I would argue that neither approach, working on its own, is fully effective. Instead, a public justice framework suggests that both the Church and the government, among other institutions, have unique and pivotal roles to play.  Local and state governments, by virtue of their considerable power and jurisdiction, have the ability to work towards reform in areas of criminal justice and education.  While the government certainly plays a part in fixing systematic issues involving education and criminal justice reform, as Tim Keller writes in Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, it is important to remember that “government programs alone cannot fully address the deeply rooted sources of hopelessness in many impoverished minority communities.”

The Church, therefore, must be actively present in such spaces. Christians, proudly championing the message of Christ’s redemptive power, are able to foster strong families and values, while at the same time deeply caring for and nurturing individuals: principally, their congregants and neighbors. It is this desire and ability to transform lives at a personal level that renders churches, and church attendees, best able to infiltrate fatherless households and offer their presence within segregated communities.

Even further, some of the most powerful stories of transformation are a result of government and church partnership. As citizens we must recognize the important contributions that these institutions can make through their cooperation with one another; both are uniquely positioned to bring better opportunities and healing to broken people, places and systems.

-Gabriella Siefert is a sophomore at Wheaton College studying Political Science and Spanish. This year she has been involved in a myriad of on campus activities including Student Government, the Wheaton College Mock Trial team and International Justice Mission.  When she is not talking, thinking and writing about political issues and their intersection with her faith, Gabriella enjoys traveling, reading and cooking elaborate meals for her family.