Minding the Opportunity Gap in Iowa

Putnam draws a crowd and rapt attention in first caucus state

Harvard scholar and author Robert Putnam consistently has his finger on the pulse of American political culture. His 2000 classic, Bowling Alone, identified a worrisome decline in the activities and institutions of popular civic engagement that historically make democracy work.

Now, in 2015’s, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, he documents an even more disturbing national trend – the growing class-based Opportunity Gap that curtails life chances for kids from less-than-wealthy families.

Putnam’s story is of isolation and mistrust, lost potential, poor health, broken relationships and ruined economics. His political message is a call to action for citizens and politicians to address the Opportunity Gap issue – one that is gaining traction in early presidential candidate selection states.

Nearly 600 Iowans streamed onto a summertime Drake University campus mostly devoid of students last Friday and into a lecture hall to hear Putnam begin with an accurate warning: his remarks at first would be a downer. With plentiful data and eloquent personal stories drawn from professional sociological interviews, he charted the social collapse of working class families, the economic insecurity of poor families, the parenting-savvy “arms race” that less educated parents and kids are losing, and the frayed social safety net in working class neighborhoods.

There is a mentoring gap, Putnam said, and no one is looking out for our kids. In part that is because now when we say “our kids,” we no longer mean all the kids in the neighborhood, community or nation.

By the end of an hour and 15 minutes, Putnam did manage to deliver a measure of promised optimism to his highly focused audience. A cross-section of Des Moines area civic leadership and grassroots activists – parents and grandparents, business people and elected officials, philanthropic board members and nonprofit staffers, children’s advocates, campaign volunteers and workers taking the morning off for a cause they care about – lined up at microphones to ask a series of informed questions. Barnes and Noble sold 80 copies of the book, which Putnam dutifully signed.

The passionately cordial college professor with a bleak critique and “purple policy solutions” is becoming a phenomenon.

A similar presentation by Putnam at St. Anselm University’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics earlier this year initiated a nonpartisan dialogue in that state that is successfully pressing presidential hopefuls of both parties to address the Opportunity Gap as a campaign issue. Every Child Matters is part of that process.

Based on the New Hampshire experience, Every Child Matters initiated a partnership with a range of Iowa and national groups to organize last week’s program at Drake’s Tom Harkin Institute of Public Policy and Citizen Engagement. The groups included: Save the Children Action Network; the Greater Des Moines Partnership; the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines; the Iowa Community Action Association; United Way of Central Iowa; the Child and Family Policy Center; Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children; the American Academy of Pediatrics – Iowa; First Focus; and Make it Work.

The aim in Iowa ultimately is the same as in New Hampshire: require candidates of both parties in the caucus process to specify solutions to the Opportunity Gap.

The Opportunity Gap not only immorally harms kids, their families and communities, according to Putnam and those among what hopefully is becoming a movement of citizens who agree. It dangerously undercuts our country’s economic performance. It menaces the belief in equality of opportunity that resides deep in our national DNA, threatening democracy itself.

Remedies are neither new nor necessarily radical. The electorate in both major parties supports key elements of an agenda that Putnam, Every Child Matters and many others have separately suggested:

  • encouraging stable, caring families by boosting jobs and wages for low-income workers;
  • providing high quality early childhood education and development opportunities;
  • helping parents with paid sick and family medical leave, coaching and home visits;
  • investing in public education;
  • mentoring more kids more intensely; and
  • creating on-ramps to success such as through community college and apprenticeships.

Presidential candidates of both parties have indicated they believe these issues affecting our kids should be central to their campaigns. But not all the candidates have said so. Every Child Matters will fight to elevate the profile of debate around children’s policies, as well as to improve the quality of that discussion.

Let’s work together to close the Opportunity Gap. Sign up your friends, family and colleagues to receive our free on-line communications and continue this most important conversation.

Every Child Matters would like to thank the following co-sponsors for helping make this event a success:

Save the Children Action Network
Greater Des Moines Partnership
Iowa Community Action Association
Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines
Child & Family Policy Center
United Way of Central Iowa
American Academy of Pediatrics, Iowa Chapter
First Focus
Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children
Make it Work