When I was growing up, I knew a lot of kids whose fathers didn't earn a living working in the bowels of a factory like my dad.
Their dads were businessmen, doctors and bankers, but our families lived blocks away, not suburbs apart. So all of us kids attended the same schools. We cheered together at football games, discoed at the same dances and had the same teacher for algebra. Our parents didn't mingle much, but most of them voted for school levies and showed up for the junior class plays.
This is not to suggest I never felt the sting of inferiority. A working-class kid is always aware of other kids' economic advantages, but most of the time they were irrelevant. We were in the thick of it — together. Plodding side by side through life at a young age teaches us that people have more in common than they sometimes want to believe.
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Such diversity also exposes less privileged kids to other families' big ideas. My parents insisted I would be the first to go to college, but they got a big assist from the peer pressure pulsing through my high-school years. I was friends with several kids who knew from birth that they would follow their parents' paths to college. Ambition is contagious.
A study came out this month that shows just how much our country's rising income inequality over the past four decades has whittled away at this way of life. Increasingly, neighborhoods are mostly low-income or mostly affluent. Middle-class neighborhoods like the one where I grew up are in dramatic decline.
The study, part of US 2010, was conducted by Stanford University and funded by Russell Sage and Brown University.
A few of the study's findings:
- In 1970, 65 percent of families lived in “middle-income” neighborhoods.
- By 2007, only 44 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.
- Only 15 percent of families in 1970 lived in one of the two extreme types of neighborhoods, but by 2007, that number had more than doubled, to 31 percent.
- The affluent are more segregated from other Americans than the poor are. That is, high-income families are much less likely to live in neighborhoods with middle- and low-income families than low-income families are to live in neighborhoods with middle- and high-income families. This has been true for the past 40 years.
This raises a crucial question: What does this income segregation mean for the social mobility of children?
We've been seeing troubling signs for years. Consider college internships, for example, which are crucial not just for future career opportunities but also for the jolt of confidence they can give to young people who arrive intimidated and leave emboldened.
When I interned for a daily newspaper in 1979, I made Guild wages. For the first time, I could focus entirely on the work, not the bills. Most of my college friends, no matter what profession they had picked, also got paid during their internships. A lot of us were working-class kids rubbing elbows with heroes for the first time in our lives. For me, that internship launched a career that remains my passion more than 30 years later.
Today plum internships from Capitol Hill to Wall Street are filled with kids who can afford to work for nothing because that's the going rate these days. Their sense of entitlement is often breathtaking.
Meanwhile, less fortunate classmates — the majority of college kids — are holding down hourly-wage jobs to stay in school. Many also are amassing student loan debt that will hobble them for years, if not decades.
Care to guess who gets to be the next generation of leaders?
What the Stanford study shows is that a deeper disparity is sinking its claws into more children in America — and at a much younger age.
These are children doomed to failing schools and rotting neighborhoods. Children who are surrounded by the sad evidence of defeated lives. Children for whom college always will be someone else's dream.
If pointing this out is waging class warfare, I have to ask: Who do you think is winning?