We open this story of opportunity in America where many would begin – with our children, and what opportunity looks like for them today. Some are born to privilege, with parents who have both the time and resources to invest in their development, living in neighborhoods with strong and cohesive social networks, attending good schools, and benefiting from substantial public investments that support them as they grow. Others are born to struggling families who face daily challenges to provide for them, living in communities with a lack of safe housing options and few job prospects for residents – communities with inadequate schools, many shattered by poverty and violence. These different starting points place children on distinctly different trajectories of growth, leading to the accelerated accumulation of advantage or disadvantage and, ultimately, to vastly different adult outcomes.
This polarization of life outcomes is not confined to any particular racial group or region of the country; it is truly national in scope. More than 16 million children, or some 22 percent of those under the age of 18, live in families who have incomes below the federal poverty level.1 Thirteen percent of children are growing up in neighborhoods that their parents describe as being never, or only sometimes, safe.2 More than one in five children were food insecure at some point during 2013 and nearly 1.3 million public school children were homeless at the start of the 2012-2013 school year.3
As disturbing as such national statistics are, we must also recognize that striking differences exist from county to county, and even neighborhood to neighborhood, across the country. This heterogeneity is further amplified by individual differences by race/ethnicity, immigration status, and so on. In combination, these relationships yield a complex mosaic that defies simple description and, certainly, simple solutions. As a result, too many of our children are being dealt a hand at birth that requires heroic efforts if they are to succeed. This is the very antithesis of the American Dream, threatening not only the lives of individual Americans but the very fabric of our society.4 Despite the hopes that accompanied national efforts in the 1960s, including the Great Society programs, the War on Poverty, and the Civil Rights Act, and in spite of the progress that has been made, the current situation reminds us how much further we need to go to make the American Dream accessible for all.
For many, strategies to bridge these gaps both begin and end with the children – improving prenatal care, expanding high quality preschool starting at ages 2 or 3, and helping parents develop the skills needed to foster their children's social, emotional, and cognitive development. Although improving early childhood development is an important investment both for the children who are targeted and for the social and economic health of the country, children's circumstances mirror those of their parents – tens of millions of adults whom we also cannot afford to ignore. Over 115 million adults in America are between the ages of 18 and 44. Far too many of them lack the education and skills they need to succeed in today's globally competitive, technology-driven labor market. They, too, need broader opportunities in order to improve their prospects for work, their ability to earn a decent wage, and to live in healthy communities with the kinds of strong social networks and institutions that will support them and, in turn, expand the opportunities they are able to pass along to their children. To ignore these adults not only condemns them to a highly uncertain future but also has potentially serious consequences for the children they are raising.
Interactions among global economic forces, government policies, and business practices have generated a self-sustaining set of dynamics that continues to drive disparities in opportunity. If these disparities were confined to this generation alone, it would be concerning enough. But there is evidence that the accumulation of advantage or disadvantage experienced by one generation is increasingly passed along to the next. As a result, life outcomes are increasingly dependent on circumstances of birth. We, and many others, believe that if, as a nation, we do nothing, then we will continue to drift apart, placing an enormous strain on the nation's social fabric and the character of its democracy.
Consequently, understanding these dynamics and transforming this understanding into policies and programs to improve equality of opportunity are critical, not only for the life outcomes of individual Americans and their children, but also for the country as a whole. This narrative builds on the extensive literature around inequality and opportunity with the goal of exploring and describing these powerful dynamics and conveying them in a way that advances the national conversation about why we must take action – and how best to do so.
Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun Initiative Co-Directors
1 Child Poverty, National Center for Children in Poverty, accessed September 10, 2015, http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html.
2 Neighborhood Safety: Indicators on Children and Youth, Child Trends Data Bank, May 2013, http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=neighborhood-safety.
3 Food Insecurity, Child Trends Data Bank, December 2014, http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=food-insecurity; Homeless Children and Youth: Indicators on Children and Youth, Child Trends Data Bank, March 2015, http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=homeless-children-and-youth.
4 See Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), where the authors use internationally comparable data to highlight the effects that inequality has on health and social problems across societies.