Santorum highlights Opportunity Gap in Iowa

Rick Santorum became the second Republican presidential candidate at a campaign-related event in Iowa this year to cite – approvingly, if selectively – the recent work of renowned Harvard researcher and author Robert Putnam on the economic and social condition of American children and families. Putnam’s harrowing description of the opportunity gap facing American kids of different economic backgrounds drew nearly 600 Iowans to a campus lecture hall at Drake University this July.

“Bring Robert Putnam, a liberal,” to President Obama, “in front of the American public,” the former Pennsylvania senator declared last week at an Iowa Caucus Consortium candidate forum in Des Moines. Santorum suggested that the president should, “instead of spending his time talking about global warming all the time, spend his time talking about how important the American family is, talking about the importance of marriage and families.”

Santorum was responding to a question from audience member and Every Child Matters activist Jill Applegate about how he would as president ensure that every child has access to high quality early learning opportunities.

The answer “is not more government intervention into the lives of children and providing them services,” Santorum replied. Referring both to Putnam’s newest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and to conservative author Charles Murray’s most recent tome, Coming Apart, for intellectual support, Santorum argued that, “the principle problem affecting young people and their ability to rise and be successful is… the breakdown of the American family.”

Putnam’s recent research and writing compellingly document the nearly insurmountable obstacles to life success faced by children whose parents are in the lower third of income, wealth and educational attainment in the United States, compared to children with parents in the top third. The growing class gaps in family life, parenting, schooling and community life between affluent kids and poorer kids are systematically excluding the latter from economic success, he says, harming children, their families, their communities, the national economy and even democracy itself.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush similarly cited both Putnam and Murray at a campaign stop in Council Bluffs soon after Putnam’s July appearance in Des Moines. Like Bush, Santorum appears to reject most of the “purple” federal policy solutions Putnam proposes in his book as remedies to the opportunity gap – remedies Putnam says have broad backing from voters in both parties, including government-supported early learning.

Santorum, observing “how profound it is for parents to be engaged and involved in nurturing and supporting their children and giving them a healthy environment in which they are encouraged to learn,” insisted that, “we can try to… bring government in and replace that, but it won’t work, it never works.”

“We have government policies, as well-meaning as they are, that really do destroy the family,” Santorum insisted, citing eligibility of unmarried mothers for government benefits when the father may be living in the home as an example. “We penalize marriage in this country,” he said.

The increasingly evident loss of equal opportunity, Robert Putnam has told audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire this year, is a dagger to the heart of the American Dream. As presidential candidates of both parties are confronted in each state by concerns about inequality, Every Child Matters will continue to focus on the effects of the opportunity gap on kids in working families and urge candidates to make the issue central to their debates. In a survey commissioned by Every Child Matters and our Iowa partner, the Child and Family Policy Center, more Iowa voters ranked the health, education and well-being of America’s children as their top priority than any other issue among those the next president must address. A solid majority expressed skepticism that “life for the next generation will be better than for us,” leading 68 percent of Iowans responding to say it is very or fairly important for candidates to focus on issues affecting children’s health, education and well-being in the presidential debates.