There’s been a lot of talk lately about closing the achievement gap. New York Times columnist David Brooks looks instead with alarm at a growing opportunity gap in a recent column about research from Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University.
“Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities,” Brooks writes. “Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not. They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading ‘Goodnight Moon,’ talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly. A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.”
Brooks also describes a widening gap in the amount of money parents spend on activities for their children and children’s levels of involvement. “In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm,” Brooks writes. “Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities.”
The poorest third of young people, Brooks adds, have become pessimistic and detached.
“Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions,” Brooks concludes. “Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out-of-touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.”