Commentary: American kids occupy one nation, but can be worlds apart

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fehmy Suliman, a 7th grader at Glendale Middle School, celebrates East High graduating seniors as they parade through the school on May 29 in hopes of inspiring younger students to work towards graduation.

Since the 1970s, those who live on the "wrong side of the tracks" in the U.S. have rapidly lost ground. Those on the right side have moved into increasingly exclusive neighborhoods and are sending their children to increasingly exclusive schools. They are enjoying marital stability, while those on the wrong side of the tracks are increasingly seeing an erosion in the institution of marriage. Within the so-called working class, family and social bonds are disintegrating.

Those were among the messages Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam delivered at Utah Foundation’s Annual Luncheon in May. Putnam rose to international fame 20 years ago with the publication of his landmark work, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” More recently, he’s the author of the best-seller “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” which chronicles an accelerating divergence between the children of educated, well-off Americans and those at the other end of the spectrum.

Key divergences occur according to educational attainment. Those with a bachelor's degree or higher spend far more time reading to their children and gather for family dinners more frequently than those with a high school degree or less. There are similar large divergences in church attendance and attitudes about social trust.

Key divergences also occur, not surprisingly, by income. For instance, those in the top 10% of earners spend far more on enrichment activities, such as music lessons and sports, than those in lower income groups. There is also a big gap in participation in school-based extra-curricular activities. As a result, the children at the top have a better chance of learning soft skills like teamwork, grit and determination, and critical thinking – skills that can help make for a successful life.

Class divergences are also growing in terms of education, from participation in high-quality pre-K to college completion rates. Disturbingly, college students with high family incomes and low test scores actually have a slightly better chance of completing than students with low family incomes and high test scores.

Putnam puts the question to those on the right side of the tracks: How can we do a better job of looking at kids on the other side and see them as “our kids?” How can we act to promote their path to the American Dream, and help them to live up to their potential?

In Utah, the challenges are less pronounced than in the nation at large. As the economist Raj Chetty has documented, Utah remains one of the most upwardly mobile states in the nation. Utah Foundation’s own research has shown that the state has a particularly robust middle class. In other words, our kids generally have a better shot at the American Dream.

But for our state to stay ahead of the curve, we must attend to those elements that strengthen future prospects. For its part, Utah Foundation has undertaken a study of numerous factors promoting social capital and community cohesion. A conversation about our strengths and weaknesses is surely one worth having, with significant implications for public policy. And it may help us find a way to bridge the divergences that are leaving some folks behind.

| Courtesy Utah Foundation Peter Reichard has been named as president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization.

Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. You can hear Utah Foundation’s interview with Robert Putnam on its “Utah Thrives” podcast at utahfoundation.org.