Georgetown Summit Addresses Equality of Opportunity Myth

EJ Dionne (left) moderates a panel at Georgetown University featuring President Obama, Robert Putnam, and Arthur Brooks. Photo by Katie Thompson.

Last week well-known author and political scientist Robert Putnam joined President Obama and several prominent scholars at Georgetown University for a three day Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit. The summit was filled with important discussions on poverty, as leaders sought to address how our nation ought to respond to the startling opportunity gap between the rich and the poor. Scheduled just a few months after the release of Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids”, the summit kicked off with a lecture from Putnam on the crisis facing poor children today.

John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, introduced Putnam, noting the success and influence of his past work on American society. President DeGioia proceeded to emphasize both the collective responsibility, and collective resources we all hold in creating a better future for the 45 million people in the U.S. who currently live in poverty. He quoted Pope Francis, who believes that helping the poor is an “inescapable task for Christ and members of his Church.” While the event itself served to educate and inform, speakers were not shy in pointing out the personal obligation we all have not to dismiss poverty as someone else’s problem.

Throughout his address, Putnam laid out a framework for understanding how the opportunity gap in America manifests itself as a moral and political dilemma. Often, Putnam iterated, we tend to believe that everyone gets on the ladder of achievement at the same point, and it is only a matter of one’s toughness and perseverance that propels them to success. However, he emphasized that this belief in “equality of opportunity” does not hold true for children who are born into poor families. In Putnam’s words, we are living in a time when “well-educated parents make the difference”. To support his reasoning, Putnam showcased several statistical analyses of how poverty depletes children of basic enrichment opportunities, which eventually dissolve their capacity to build different forms of social capital.

As a result of the monetary cost many forms of enrichment require, poor kids are often prevented from participating in a wide range of activities; from summers at camp, to trips to the zoo. Many schools across the U.S. in recent years have started charging a fee for participating in extracurricular activities. From Putnam’s tabulations, these costs on average, amount to $400 per kid, per semester. For a single parent in a minimum wage job, having her child play football, for example, is out of the question. As a result, poor kids are left out of educational and social opportunities that are developmentally critical.

‘Equality of opportunity’ does not hold true for children who are born into poor families...

Alongside these monetary hurdles, poor kids have also been disproportionately impacted by the breakdown of the working class family. Compared to the richest quarter of families, the poorest quarter of families are 50 percentmore likely to be single parent households. Within these households, there’s a high probability that parents are juggling two or three jobs to put food on the table. This increase in time working outside the home runs in direct relationship with something Putnam refers to as the “Goodnight Moon” time. “Goodnight Moon” time refers to time parents can invest in early childhood interaction; whether it is reading bedtime stories, or providing children with other stimuli that will help them grow into well-rounded individuals. While poor families are unable to invest in “Goodnight Moon” time because of strained energy and resources, middle and upper-class children are receiving the benefits of said interactions, giving them an advantage over their low-income peers down the road.

At one point, Putnam remarked, “Poor kids in America are isolated… they are alone”. He believes that poor kids have not only lost the benefits of all-encompassing parental support, but support from teachers, civic groups and churches. More and more, Putnam noted, religious communities are distancing themselves from poor kids. According to data, poor kids are not going to church, and most certainly not going to church within a different economic silo. As a largely Christian audience took Putnam's report, it was clear that the Church has not realized the full capacity of its calling to love and care for the poor. The emotions Putnam relayed poor kids often feeling (“loneliness, distrust, isolation”) are a direct result of our lack of engagement both relationally, and as responsible actors in civic society.

Proceeding Putnam’s lecture, a panel of diverse faith scholars continued to discuss questions of responsibility. Among the panelists was Michael Gerson, Washington Post columnist and visiting fellow with the Center for Public Justice. Gerson commented on the need for elected officials to address the common good and not just the folks providing them with votes. The majority of our political dialogue, Gerson noted, is focused around what is best for the middle class. Social mobility, however, is a value shared by all. When an individual prospers in community, everyone, in some fashion, benefits from their success. Gerson highlighted the fact that there are steps that should be taken to redirect the market to allow everyone the chance grasp the opportunity ladder.

In the following days participants at the summit continued to seek practical ways to resurrect the American dream. President Obama stated, “I think it would be powerful for our faith based organizations to speak out on this in a more forceful fashion.” His statement rings true, and is especially pertinent as we enter into an election season. Putnam has repeatedly spoken out in favor of making poor kids a priority in the next election. Bringing this discussion front and center is certainly within our power.

In addition to political receptiveness, there are many ways in which we can seek opportunities to serve our neighbors in poverty. If we start living in line with Putnam’s philosophy that “Poor kids are not just somebody else’s kids, they are our kids,” then surely our actions would begin to change. Our energy should be channeled into forms of mentoring and rethinking the ways in which our churches can not only be more welcoming, but actively involved in the communities that they have grown apart from.

President DeGioia said it best: “Commitment to the common good changes everything.” This couldn't be more relevant for children living in poverty. Putnam has outlined a worthy agenda, now it is up to all of us to get to work.

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.