American Dream in Crisis: ‘Disparity of opportunity must be addressed’

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Manchester Ink Link Opinion/Editorial

It's your turn.
It’s your turn.

On Friday I had the opportunity to hear Harvard Sociology professor Dr. Robert Putnam speak at the NH Institute of Politics. Dr. Putnam is best known for his book Bowling Alone, which chronicles the decline of social capital in America.

His new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is about the growing opportunity gap between affluent children and their poor and working-class counterparts.

He began by recounting his own story of growing up in Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950s where the poorest kids sat in the same classrooms as the wealthiest. He describes a meritocracy where students got ahead in school and in life through their own native abilities and hard work.

These days children of more affluent and college educated parents are far more likely to attend college and become members of the middle class than poor students whosScreenshot 2015-03-22 at 10.16.01 PMe parents never made it past high school.

He put up one slide after another of what he called scissor charts. Each one showed the increasing divergence between the best educated Americans and those who struggle with no more than a high school diploma. Social mobility for poor and working class children is a thing of the past.

Putnam’s story is also my story. I grew up in a pretty rough working-class neighborhood in Manchester. Our parents drank and swore, and hit us when we were naughty. Most hadn’t finished high school. We had one particularly notorious family down the street. One night the mom got drunk and shot the family dog because he wouldn’t stop barking. It was OK. The dog recovered, and he was quieter and a lot more selective about what he barked at after that.

I was not an outstanding student, but I applied to the University of New Hampshire and by some miracle they accepted me. My mom worked in a local sweater factory and my father was very ill when I left for college in the fall of 1975. He died that spring and yet I was able to stay at college and finish. How did this happen?

Tuition was a $1,000 a semester. My parents had bought the house for $10,000 in 1958 with a G.I. loan, so it was paid off when my father died. I worked summers and I received a small veterans benefit from my father. It was not easy but we were able to pay my tuition and expenses.

How was it possible for me and the other kids like me to get a four-year college degree? I guess it’s because we all thought it WAS possible. My parents thought so, my teachers thought so, I thought so, and so did the University of New Hampshire.

So here I am.

I am not sure this could happen today. It’s no longer possible to pay for tuition with a summer job. The application process and the FAFSA forms are inscrutable. And most importantly, the adults are not as optimistic about higher education opportunities as they were when I was a kid.

I’m glad I got on the train before it left the station. Because my husband and I are well-educated, our children have the same opportunities that I had. According to Putnam’s research it is very likely that if I had not been accepted to UNH and took a low-paying job instead, the trajectory of my life and my descendants would have been completely different.

Putnam came to the Institute of Politics because he thinks this disparity of opportunity is something that must be addressed, and the sooner the better. Currently in the United States half of all students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The same is true in Manchester. I have often described our schools as the incubator of our community. The children who are in our classrooms today will make up our city’s workforce in 10 or 20 years. Who they are and what they can do as adults will drive our economy.

Manchester ranked 10 on this list of upwardly mobile cities.
Manchester ranked 10 on this list of upwardly mobile cities.

Not long ago Manchester was named as one of the top 10 cities in the United States for intergenerational upward mobility by the Equality of Opportunity Project. That is something to be proud of, but if we are to maintain that status we must make a concerted effort to provide the same kinds of opportunities for today’s kids that we benefitted from.

Click here for more on geography of intergenerational mobility in the U.S. 

Screenshot 2015-03-22 at 10.44.27 PMDr. Putnam lives in Jaffrey, NH, and believes that New Hampshire’s prominence on the national political stage provides us with an opportunity to bring this discussion into the limelight. Dr. Putnam, the NH Charitable Foundation, the Warren Rudman Institute, the NH Institute of Politics and UNH’s NH Listens program will be holding a series of Community Conversations about this issue.

New Hampshire’s Kids, the American Dream and the Growing Opportunity Gap facilitated discussion sessions will be held around the state during the month of May.

May 6: Berlin, Nashua, Laconia

May 7: Plymouth, Pittsfield, Manchester

May 12: Lancaster, Portsmouth, Keene

May 13: Rochester, Lebanon, Concord

Doors open at 5:30 p.m. The programs will run 6-9 p.m.

Refreshments and childcare will be provided.

Stay tuned to Manchester Inklink for more details. I am looking forward to this event and I am excited to get started on this conversation about Our Kids.

Kathy Staub


Kathy Staub is an At-large member of the Manchester Board of School Committee and mother of two grown children who graduated from Central High School.

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