Our Kids, the American Dream in Crisis — Reflections on Dr. Robert D. Putnam’s Book

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October 31, 2015

Several days ago, my husband and I went to a gathering at Georgetown University to meet a group of premed undergraduate students all from the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), a program for low income students. I had read about these students in the summer in a Washington Post article. The reporter, Daureen Brown, told a compelling story about Rashema, a homeless GSP student who defied all odds to graduate at the top of her high school class in Washington, DC and ended up at Georgetown while her mother and siblings still lived at the shelter. I was so moved by the article that I got in touch with the reporter and was connected to the Director of GSP. We arranged for one of the students from this low income program, Johanny, to “shadow” me in the hospital and my office for a week. Johanny also was able to shadow my Lady Docs friends Dr. Holly Gross, an ophthalmologist, and Dr. Karen Lewis, a pediatrician, in their offices. We all agreed Johanny was a remarkable “kid,” bright, polite, determined, compassionate. Johanny reminded me of my tough journey through high school and college, and eventually in medical school. Like Johanny, I did not have much. My English was so limited, but I understood as a “Have Not ” teenager that your inner strength is as important as your intelligence to make things happen. You set a goal, keep your determination as a little fire inside of you, and head toward your goal. Along the way, bad things might derail you from your path, but you get up from your fall, lick your wounds and get back onto the path. Recognize those who can help you, seek help, be grateful, and eventually you will get to your destination. The GSP group of students did not disappoint us. They were all so bright, lively, vulnerable from the background they came from, but eager to head out and conquer their world with the limited resources they have compared to the “rich” kids. Many of these students got accepted to even more prestigious institutions, such as Johanny who got a full ride to Wellesley, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, but chose to go to Georgetown and its more supportive program for students “at risk” like her. One of the students we met was a charming and energetic Vietnamese girl majoring in Neurobiology, who turned down Pomona, Amherst and Haverford to attend Georgetown with a full scholarship. She, like many of the low income students, couldn’t afford to go wherever she wanted to like a rich student; she had to go where the money was, as she put it. My husband and I ended up staying with the students more than an hour past the end of the meeting. They asked us what it was like to be physicians, how to get into medicine, if it’s possible for them to do so. They surrounded us like young birds surrounding their parents trying to learn how to fly out of their nest. The world often is unkind to the underdogs, although many people in the upper class of society believe there is an abundance of help available for the poor, that all they need is to get up from their seat and join an active society and they will be fine. It’s such a misconception. This summer, I read Professor Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids, the American Dream in Crisis,” on the train going from Vienna to Prague, then to Budapest. Dr. Putnam is an expert in poverty and has been an advisor to the past four or five presidents of both parties. He has studied and researched poverty for decades, using his own experience growing up in Ohio in a lower middle class neighborhood. Dr. Putnam studied hard and attended several of the most prestigious schools, from Swarthmore to Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) and then to Yale. He has served as Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has researched the trends of poverty, how society has changed from the 1950s until the present, and what it meant to be poor then and what is means today. According to Dr. Putnam, society in the 1950s was very different. Poor and rich families (of the same ethnicity) mingled more in the same neighborhoods, and poor children had the chance to be in the same classrooms with their wealthy schoolmates. This mere circumstance of “Whom You Go to School with Matters,” studies have shown, helped poor children to thrive. Putnam cited a study by Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton showing how poor children’s achievement improves in high-income schools. This effect, believed to be the most consistent finding in all education research, has been replicated in several studies. Unfortunately, in modern society, neighborhoods are more wealth-segregated, and high-income families settle in areas with better schools, leading the gap between the poor and rich children in modern society to widen. In the chapter about families, Dr. Putnam also explains, in a very poignant way, how family structure has changed drastically since the 1950s, with more single parents heading the impoverished households, and more mothers working outside of the home. Children in impoverished areas are no longer supervised in a nurturing environment as they were in the 1950s, causing them to stray from the path of success. The community of privileged children makes it easier for them to achieve success. Their parents have a wider network of mentors for the children, such as more affluent neighbors, colleagues, educated and powerful friends. The lack of mentorship, Dr. Putnam explains, is one of the major reasons why poor children do not succeed. While the “helicopter” parents of the more wealthy children are hovering over their kids, children of the poor, like Johanny, don’t even know how to prepare to take SAT for college! Their schools often are in unsafe areas, where the teachers spend most of their time trying to control the disruptive students, leaving less or no time to tend to the the other children in their classes. Many of the school advisors and teachers, as Johanny told me, and as discussed in Dr. Putnam’s book, have little hope for their students. They either give poor advice, or even discourage their students from seeking higher education. Dr. Robert Putnam’s book is compelling, so extremely well written in eloquent prose, that all of us should read it. The book consists of real life stories, where Putnam and his research staff looked for study subjects in poor neighborhoods and offered them fifty dollars to tell the stories of their lives. There were so many heart breaking stories of how older kids had to take care of their younger siblings, how poor kids with dreams about success had to bitterly succumb to their life of poverty even when they tried so hard to escape. In one story, the study subject even asked for permission to bring his young son to the interview so that his son can finally meet, for the first time in his life, someone who graduated from college. In the final chapter of this book, Dr. Putnam offers specific solutions to narrow the gap between rich and poor students. He encourages all of us to join him in this movement of changing a troublesome tide, to lift many of these children out of poverty. We each can do our small part in changing their fate, by mentoring them, by helping them to go to areas with better schools, or by demanding that our school system should end their “pay to play” policy, so poor children can play team sports and join the youth orchestra, and experience the joy of childhood that our children have been allowed to do. Putnam encourages us to speak out against inequality and injustice, and recreate a society where all children have a chance to blossom fruitfully into adulthood. It’s time to stop the blame game that we see both political parties playing daily. It is time, as individuals in grassroots movement, to change one life at a time, one school at a time, one neighborhood at a time. We can do better than politicians; we can change someone’s life for the better, and at a more rapid pace. For an equal and improved society, we all have the moral obligation to help bring these changes for the poor children.