Jenna grew up in a suburb of Chicago. Throughout grade school her parents encouraged her to try new things: field hockey, piano lessons, and summer camp. Her mom drove her to these activities, and despite busy schedules, her mom and dad made sure that the family ate dinner together every night. As she got older, Jenna excelled in field hockey and went on to play at the college of her choice.
Vanessa grew up in the Southside of Chicago. Throughout grade school, she wasn’t allowed to play outside of her house because of gang violence on the street. Her single mom worked two jobs to make ends meet, and there was no way she could afford extracurricular activities for Vanessa. Dance lessons would cost too much, if a summer camp existed in the neighborhood, there wouldn’t be anyone to drive her, and because Vanessa had to watch her little brother after school, playing an after-school sport was out of the question. College was not on Vanessa’s radar after she graduated high school, and she began working in a low wage job.
Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has a multitude of scissor graphs to describe this phenomenon, but it can be explained in simple terms: rich kids have access to community, relationships, and extracurricular activities that most poor kids don’t. And without those things, opportunity evaporates.
Through her experiences with field hockey, Jenna learned about things like discipline and teamwork and had a network of coaches who served as mentors on and off the field. These character building skills translated into how she approached school, and later, the workforce. Vanessa, however, didn’t have access to these same character building activities, nor did she have access to mentors. No one ever taught her about ways to do well in school or work. She had no vision for what she could be one day, because she had no examples of it in her own home or neighborhood.
These fictional accounts highlight what Putnam recently referred to as a “culture of exclusion” that isolates poor kids. Social scientists point to an opportunity gap widened by income inequality and a lack of economic mobility. And while not everyone agrees on what perpetuates the opportunity gap or on policy solutions (though everyone does seem to have graphs and charts that are quite good at convincing you of their argument), most can agree that strong, healthy relationships that cultivate community matter.
It matters that a child has one-on-one time with parents, with teachers, with coaches. It is key to a child’s development to have inclusive experiences with others, and that’s why Putnam so wisely emphasizes the role that extracurricular activities play in adolescence. They are a form of cultivating community essential for a child’s flourishing, but increasingly open only to those with the money to purchase it.
How then can we make community more accessible to the children who need it most, and whose job is it to make that happen? I believe the answer lies in a vision of public justice, which suggests that many institutions in society each have unique and vital roles and responsibilities in this task.
We know that the family a child grows up in has a tremendous impact on his or her opportunity later in life. A recent report from Robert Lerman and Bradford Wilcox uses multi-year longitudinal data on parents and their children to highlight that:
“Children who grow up in intact families have a greater chance of continuing further in their education compared to their peers from step-families and single parent families. They also have a better chance of establishing an intact family themselves with a comfortable income. In fact marriage is a better predictor of family income than is education, race or ethnicity.”
Family is the first community children experience and thus is essential to creating opportunity.
The Church must step up. Churches are often one of the only sources of healthy community in dangerous neighborhoods. Within a church’s door, kids and families can find friendship, mentors, activities, and a faith tradition that (should) welcome them.
Churches can offer after school programs that keep kids off the street, provide mentoring services, teach technical skills, and participate in the spiritual formation of the families in the community.
Many nonprofits, including faith-based organizations, are already doing excellent work in ensuring that all children, regardless of zip code, have the chance to succeed. Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP) is just one example of a nationally recognized organization working with disadvantaged youth to build relationships.
I recently spoke with a young man whose experience with the program changed his life trajectory. He was mentored throughout high school by a YAP advocate who came alongside him as a friend and mentor. Now a college student, this young man said the exposure he received to a world outside of his violence-riddled neighborhood changed everything. He realized he was capable of doing things he never dreamed of- things like graduating from high school and thriving in college.
It’s important for citizens to support work dedicated to the formation of our most vulnerable young people. Support can come in the form of things like prayer, volunteering, mentoring, and financial gifts.
Government also has a role in helping to facilitate social mobility and opportunity. State and local governments can work to support programs in low income communities that offer the kind of educational, relational, and skill building activities mentioned above. All levels of government can do more to support the many non-profits working in and with these communities.
In addition, government can help empower and strengthen marriage and families, literally the birthplace of children’s opportunity. Federal policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) can be expanded, particularly for single adults to help them form families. The refundable Child Tax Credit helps parents with the costs of raising children, and by substantially increasing this and merging it with the non-refundable childcare tax credit, government could provide additional resources to parents and their children.
It’s important for government to empower, not supplant, families, churches and non-profits in the work of caring for our kids. It’s also government’s role to create space for the diversity of institutions above to flourish in the public square.
Opportunity is cultivated in community. Let’s do a better job of making it accessible to all.
-Katie Thompson is the editor of Shared Justice, an online journal published by the Center for Public Justice. She is a big fan of the East Coast, iced coffee, and people who have a heart for justice.