Friday, April 10, 2015

Inequality: A Tale of Two Zip Code.

By Don Siegel

A critical theme in the current national discussion concerns our increasing economic inequality and our inability to do much about it. In essence, pundits have argued that two Americas have emerged over the past several decades, with one possessing a great deal of wealth and power, and the other barely able to make ends meet. While this is not news to most folks, as there always have been and will be richer and poorer people, the finding that it is becoming increasingly difficult for a child born into an economically challenged group to move upward into a more prosperous one is quite troubling. Sociologist, Robert Putnam, has tackled this issue in great depth in his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crises, and identifies many of the obstacle that poorer kids face in breaking out of the vicious cycle that is increasingly sustaining the status quo.  

Putnam describes the lives of kids who live on different sides of the tracks in towns from various regions of the country, and shows how dissimilar their experiences are growing up, and as a result, how their futures become predetermined. That is to say, just as data shows increasing inequality in America, it also shows that upward mobility is also increasingly difficult to attain. As we all recognize, there are great differences in the schools American children attend, great differences in family structures and support children get in their homes, great differences in how parents interact with, advocate for, and support their children, great differences with whom children interact, and great differences in the organization and safety of the communities in which they grow-up. When all of these differences are taken into account, it is not surprising that kids' knowledge, skills and values are closely connected to their socioeconomic status, and how what they know, can do, and value determines their futures. 

Using Putnam’s strategy, I decided to do a quick contrast of the community in which we work, the North End of Springfield, which represents one of the poorest zip codes in the state (01107), and a nearby suburb of Springfield, Longmeadow, which represents one of the wealthiest zip codes in Massachusetts (01106). Actually, it is quite remarkable that the zip codes differ by only 1 digit, and that the Google Maps distance between locale centers is only 6.7 miles. Yet, as Putnam shows for other locales, citizens of such communities might as well be living in different universes.

To start with, I went to the U.S. Census Bureau website and plugged in each zip code sequentially to find out what I could about the North End and Longmeadow.  First, I found that the North End has 11,611 citizens, while Longmeadow has a population of 16,021. The next statistic that I was curious about was income. As expected I found quite a disparity, even more so than I had expected. The median family income in the North End was $21,737, while the comparable median income for Longmeadow was $103,472, a nearly 5 fold difference! Consequently, it was not particularly surprising to find that 43.2% of people living in the North End were living below the poverty level, which, for a family of 4 is $24,250. On the other hand, only 4.9% of those living in Longmeadow fell below the poverty line.  

With these preliminary data, I next wanted to find out something about the characteristics of people living in each community. On average, North Enders were 29.5 years of age, and are 77.2% Hispanic, 8.2% African American, and 13.1% Caucasian. Of those 25 years of age or older 52.2% had a high school diploma or higher, and 8.8% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In contrast, the data for Longmeadow showed an average age of 45.0, and 3.9% of Hispanic origin, .8% African American, and 87.5% Caucasian. Of those 25 years of age or older 94.1% had a high school diploma or higher, and 61.2% had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

I next wanted to get a quick glimpse of what the census reported about family structure. In the North End 41.5% of families with children had both a father and a mother present, while 58.5% were headed solely by a mother. In Longmeadow, 90.3% of families had both a father and a mother present, while only about 1% had only a mother. 

Crunching all of these numbers, one starts to see pictures of two very different communities. One is younger, poorer, largely minority, having a much lower educational attainment in its adult population, and having a majority of households headed by a mother without a father present. The other is older, wealthier, with a small minority population, fairly well educated, with most families having both a father and a mother present.

Given these profiles and the belief that education is a powerful means to upward mobility, I was curious about how children from these adjacent towns were doing in school. While not the perfect metric, I decided to look at the MCAS scores for 6th graders at Chestnut Middle School in the North End and Glenbrook Middle School in Longmeadow. As seen below, the percentile for how kids do in contrast to other kids throughout Massachusetts are shown for math and English. As one can see the North End 6th graders from 2008-2014 typically fall in the lowest decile, while the Longmeadow kids are typically in the top quartile, and periodically in the top decile.

Given these profiles, which tend to track similarly from 6th grade on up, one wonders, if education is the great equalizer, how kids from the North End are going to defy the odds and become upwardly mobile? In essence, how are their schools, families, and communities going to provide for and support all the things that they need in order to become competitive with their Longmeadow peers who are already doing extraordinarily well, and more than likely, are getting more along the way to support their development. Using the train leaving the station metaphor, the problem for North End kids is that their Longmeadow peers are on a train that has already left the station and it is accelerating towards its destination, while their train is delayed, and once begun, will be traveling at a slower speed, and decelerate along the way. Given the status quo, it is easy to predict who will arrive first, with the possibility that the slower train will never arrive at all!

What can PC do?

While many people across the country are trying to figure out how to help the generic North Enders,  no one has really come up with a solution. It is true that some have seen this as basically a school problem, and have crafted various charter school formats such as KIPP or Success Academy, but as educational researcher Richard Rothstein has argued over the years, and is more recently illustrated by Robert Putnam, the issues for improving educational attainment and reducing social and economic immobility, go well beyond what schools can do. In large part, it also goes beyond what parents in the North End, or the North End Community, can do for its kids. To increase the possibility for socio-economic mobility kids are going to need much more than they are getting with regard to education, enrichment, and support from people within and beyond their schools and community. As we know from sports, to compete with the best, one needs to do what the best are doing to prepare themselves for competition.

This is where programs like Project Coach can help. Such programs are not a comprehensive solution to the problem, but certainly are part of the solution. So what can Project Coach actually do to level the playing field for underserved kids to really provide them with an equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream? Perhaps, Project Coach's most important function is to help kids connect with a world in which they have little experience. This means that Project Coach can help kids acquire the knowledge, skills, and values that they will need to make the competitive process fairer. It also means connecting kids with people who can guide and support their development and upward mobility. In essence, to use sociologist Annette Lareau’s term, Project Coach can take on the role of being the concerted cultivator for it’s participants. Like the middle and upper class parents she describes who serve as “agents” for their children by making certain that they do well in school, participate in the “right” activities, acquire the necessary experiences, and can connect to people who can help them get access to any one of a number of pursuits in which they wish to partake, Project Coach can serve such a concerted cultivating function.

Essentially, what I am proposing here is that for the North End kids to play on a level playing field with the Longmeadow kids, and to really have equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and realize their goals, they need to have some semblance of  equal support. This is partly about closing an $81,735 gap in annual family income, but it is also about filling disparities in what kids get in school, the psycho-social skills that they acquire, the aspirations they develop, the cultural and social capital they build, and the sorts of obstacles they must surmount. Yes, life is unfair, as President Kennedy once said,  but as we see disparities today between communities such as the North End of Springfield and Longmeadow, the unfairness from cradle to grave, is beyond what fair minded people living in a democracy should be willing to tolerate. We can, and should be willing to make an effort to level the playing field and to really create conditions for all of our youth to pursue their dreams with equal opportunity. That is what Project Coach is all about.

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