Robert Putnam, who spoke this Monday at Georgetown for the Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty, gives a great stump speech for poor kids who are falling through the cracks in our society. So much so that moderator John Carr described Putnam as an Old Testament prophet with charts — Isaiah, with a good grasp of Powerpoint.
Our culture has been terrible at providing opportunities to poor children. Putnam’s data finds that poor children have fewer chances to do well in school and less parental involvement, and are generally isolated from society and even from church. With this background, we shouldn’t be surprised that children who are born into poverty have trouble finishing college and building a stable, prosperous life.
Putnam calls this the "chief moral crisis of our time." A panel of experts from evangelical and Catholic traditions joined him on Monday to contextualize his research and look toward solutions.
Putnam gives us a common point of agreement across ideological lines: that we lack an equality of opportunity in America right now. How well you do in life mostly depends on who your parents are — the precise opposite of the American Dream.
And across partisan lines, as a member of the Green Party or as a Tea Partier, we can agree that this is evil.
In light of this evil, the panel called for multiple approaches to policy solutions. We ought to attack the problems of inequality in multiple ways — from reforming the criminal justice system, to early childhood education, to working to provide more stable wages. This strategy of policy reforms have been referred to as "purple solutions" — neither distinctly red nor blue, but both.
Working together, we can throw a lot of spaghetti at a lot of walls until we have specific policies that let us help kids.
Putnam and the panelists also argued for more than simply policy reform. To create real change for children born into impoverished families, a change of mentality is necessary. We need to capture, again, a spirit of solidarity currently missing in our public discourse.
Corporate solidarity recognizes that we all benefit from equality of opportunity. Public high schools, which prepare kids well for life regardless of their financial situation, is an example of this; even if I can afford to send my kids to a nice private school — or even if I don’t have kids at all — our society will be stronger when I understand the poor kids in our society to be my own kids, and am willing to spend to take care of them.
This used to be the consensus in American culture before it was seized by a frankly sinful selfishness.
The Circle of Protection, in which Sojourners stands, is asking all of the declared 2016 presidential candidates to focus on these issues of poverty and inequality. By recording a three minute video, they can explain how they would help poor kids and how alleviating poverty will be a priority for their administration. By opening the conversation to these questions, we hope to invigorate care for the common good in our politics and help answer this moral crisis.
The discussion on Monday at Georgetown is a good beginning but it is only a beginning. We need to continue having these practical discussions and pushing forward until we have a society built on opportunity, not caste.
Greg Williams is Communications Assistant for Sojourners.