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KRISTOF: For second term, start with toddlers

  • This artwork by Mark Weber relates to children and technology.

Point to a group of toddlers in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the U.S., and it's a good bet that they will go to college, buy nice houses and enjoy white-collar careers.

Point to a group of toddlers in a low-income neighborhood, and — especially if they're boys — they're much more likely to end up dropping out of school, struggling in dead-end jobs and having trouble with the law.

Something is profoundly wrong when we can point to 2-year-olds in this country and make a plausible bet about their long-term outcomes — not based on their brains and capabilities, but on their ZIP codes.

President Barack Obama spoke movingly in his second Inaugural Address of making equality a practice as well as a principle. So, Mr. President, how about using your second term to tackle this most fundamental inequality?

For starters, this will require a fundamental rethinking of anti-poverty policy. American assistance programs, from housing support to food stamps, have had an impact, and poverty among the elderly has fallen in particular (they vote in high numbers, so government programs tend to cater to them). But, too often, such initiatives have addressed symptoms of poverty, not causes.

Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty," the United States has spent some $16 trillion or more on means-tested programs. Yet the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration.

What accounts for the cycles of poverty that leave so many people mired in the margins, and how can we break these cycles?

Some depressing clues emerge from a new book, "Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance," by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano.

Neuman and Celano focus on two neighborhoods in Philadelphia. In largely affluent Chestnut Hill, most children have access to personal computers and the shops have eight children's books or magazines on sale for each child living there.

Take a 20-minute bus ride on Germantown Avenue and you're in the Philadelphia Badlands, a low-income area inhabited mostly by working-class blacks and Latinos. Here there are few children's books, few private computers and only two public computers for every 100 children.


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