Leveling the Playing Field: Out-of-School Programs Closing the Inequality Gap
Each of us may have a different answer to this question, but I suspect that in the end we would come up with some variation on the theme of attempting to level the playing field for youth who, for whatever reasons, need to catch-up to their more privileged peers. What we want to achieve is to help youth build the sorts of assets that will give them a realistic possibility for breaking out of the cycle that has landed them in the “free or reduced lunch” classification that is commonly used to define kids coming from poor circumstances and who live in stressed neighborhoods. Geoffrey Canada, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has used the following metaphor to frame what it is that we are trying to do. He sees the problem as analogous to two trains leaving a station at different times headed for the same destination. One train leaves earlier, and travels at a greater velocity than the train that departs at a later time. Inevitably, the train leaving earlier and traveling faster will arrive sooner than the train departing later. Whether the later departing train, which travels slower can catch up or even make it to its destination, is problematic. However, Canada and others contend, that with appropriate support, we can get the later departing train to its destination by expediting its start time and increasing its speed. Of course, this metaphor has to do with redressing deficient developmental and educational resources and opportunities that we provide for poor kids growing-up in stressed neighborhoods, relative to their peers growing up in a very different world. From my perspective, why we do what we do, is to rectify a playing field that has become distorted and in so doing provide “whatever it takes” to help the later departing train catch-up. While this perspective helps us to see the problem, we also know from the work that we do every day, that solving it is not simple. However, a driving force in our work is having the belief that a solution exists, that a later departing and slower train can ultimately get to where it is going, and that we can make a significant contribution to this occurring.
Another Way to See the Problem that we are trying to Solve
While most of us have been trying to find ways to supercharge Train 2, and for the most part, we have done remarkable work to increase it’s velocity, Train 1, has also accelerated, and reached an even greater velocity. Unfortunately, it’s incremental speed increase has been greater than that of Train 2, and the arrival time differential, over the years, has been actually increasing. That this has occurred is represented by two sources of data that most of us have heard about, but probably have not spent much time pondering. The first item has to do with trends in family income in the U.S. over the past 30 years. While there are many ways to breakdown such information, the contrast between the top 1% and the rest of us has been a popular, but not uncontroversial way, to do this. On average, these data show that since 1979 the top 1% have doubled their share of the nations income from 10% to 20%, while the rest have only seen modest gains, or no gains at all, depending where a family fell in the 99% distribution. One percenters also have average incomes of about one million dollars (lower end of the range being $367K), and between 2009-2011, they saw their incomes rise by about 11% while the rest fell slightly. When the data are cut using racial classifications we see a similar pattern. Using 2010 data, it has been reported that white families earn $2 for every $1 earned by black and Hispanic families, and the wealth gap (i.e., assets minus debts) has grown over the 30 year period. Recent data shows that, on average, white families had approximately $632,000 in assets while Hispanics had $110,000 and blacks, $98,000. These data suggest, as inferred above, that Train 1 has been traveling even faster relative to Train 2 over the last three decades.
A second, related story that has been emerging is how possible it may be for youth on Train 2 to hop onto Train 1. This, of course, is what I believe most of us working in the out-of-school world are trying to facilitate. Again, while remarkable work is being done, aggregate data shows that jumping from Train 2 to Train 1 is quite difficult. Unfortunately, the data show that once a child is on a train, it appears that they will have to finish their journey on it. Despite the American Dream credo that hard work will lead to great rewards, we see that migrating across the economic spectrum in America is not so simple. Indeed, 65% of people born in the bottom fifth of the family income scale stay in the bottom two-fifths, while 62% born in the top fifth stay in the top two-fifths. There does seem to be a certain “stickiness” to staying in the bracket to which one is born, but data also show 8% of males born in the lowest quintile moving up to the top one. While this is not the norm, it does give us some reason for hope. Actually, I suspect that most of us would be quite happy with just helping kids to catch-up a bit, even if it did not mean making it all the way from the bottom to the top.
 In scanning through these data one is struck by how much geography and its concomitants matter in how probable it is for a child who starts in the lowest income quintile to make it to the top quintile in their lives. For example, for a child born in Memphis her probability is 2.6%, while for a child born in Salt Lake City, his probability is 11.5%. While in outright terms, 11.5% is not all that great, the variation in the data is intriguing, and accounting for why such a large difference exists between locales might provide some insight into what we can do to enhance a child’s upward mobility. As well, measures of absolute upward mobility, which measures the income percentile a child reaches who starts at the 25th percentile also provides some hopeful trends. For example, children starting at the 25th percentile in Memphis can be expected to reach the 34.4th percentile, and those growing-up in Salt Lake City, on average, reach the 46.4th percentile.
The really interesting questions emanating from these data center on the factors that account for differences in locales, and what we can learn about them to help us develop strategies to enhance the upward mobility of the kids with which we work? Seemingly, these are two of the most critical questions that should be asked and answered if out-of-school programs are to have the impact that we hoped they would have when we first became connected to them as agents of change.
What do the data tell us and what can we do to foster upward mobility?
Doing a variety of statistical analyses, the Harvard-Berkeley Research Team that published the locale data found that a variety of factors were related to mobility measures. Significant correlations were found between upward mobility and such things as school quality, income inequality and racial/class segregation within a city, the number of kids with two parent families, and the religiosity, civic engagement, and cohesiveness of a community.
While it may be speculative, what strikes me most about this study and its findings is how it dovetails with what many folks in the out-of-school and educational sectors have already concluded. In essence, underserved kids need to engage in an array of activities that provide the “wrap-around” approach that individuals such as Geoffrey Canada have proposed. However, as we know, family income is intertwined with where one lives, and the associated resources that are readily available to kids. Advocating for and creating better schools is great, and certainly plays a critical part in catapulting children upward, but financial support for them (highly correlated to neighborhood), plays a critical part in what kids are offered at the schools where they live. As we also learn from this study, social capital appears to be a critical factor in discriminating among locales having different upward mobility profiles. In essence, kids need to bond with their communities, and to bridge beyond to others who can help them to access resources and institutions that can help them to build assets that make them more viable in the mainstream. As hypothesized by some, bridging is particularly difficult in locales that are spread out, and in which various groups are segregated. Not only is it more difficult for working age people to find jobs where they may exist, but it is also more difficult for them to get to them. Children living in such locales, like their parents, also suffer from being socially isolated from the mainstream, and, consequently, are less likely to have access to all of the things that they need to truly thrive.
Irrespective of a program’s core theme, it is hard not to notice the amalgam of people who come together in the best programs, and the sorts of community and extra-community activities in which youth in such programs are engaged. In Project Coach, which is typical of many programs that I have observed, underserved Latino and African-American kids who live in a relatively isolated section of town, come together with teachers, graduate students, undergraduate students, an array of community people, and various others, such as college professors, health professionals, and mentors. The mix in the group with regard to racial makeup, socioeconomic statuses, family backgrounds, educational achievements, and extracurricular interests is remarkably diverse, and reflects the best in social bonding and social bridging. As well, our program provides for participants to travel to other locales where they can work with peers from other programs, visit colleges that they may be interested in applying to, see exhibits at museums, attend cultural events, and even travel to distant places within and outside the country. A PCers’ school life is also closely monitored, and youth are supported with personal academic coaches who help them to negotiate their way through middle and high school. While not unique to Project Coach, the sorts of relationships, activities, and experiences that kids get in such programs are what I think we see missing in the lives of kids growing up in communities low on the mobility indexes, and who are geographically and socially isolated from where resources are more readily available to support their growth and development. In essence, we are helping kids get on the right set of tracks, increasing the velocity beyond that which they would be moving had we not been around, and keeping them on the rails as they move outside of their geographical and socio-economic locales.
While it is very easy to get caught up in the day to day “chaos” of working in the out-of-school world, we also should stop and reflect on why we are so willing to expend so much time, energy, and money running a vast array of activities. In considering the answer to such a question, we should see the wider issues that we are attempting to address. It is about leveling a very distorted playing field, facilitating upward mobility, and helping to support a tenet of the American Dream which claims that if one works hard, expends effort, and plays by the rules, they, too, can live happy and productive lives.
 For Springfield MA the data show that kids starting in the lowest quintile have a 7.8% chance of masking it to the top quintile. As well, kids starting at the 25th centile, on average make it to the 41.9th centile.