Opportunity and Family Values

Good evening everybody and welcome to In the News.  Glad you could be with us again today.  I wanted to talk a little bit about a study that I recently came across.  Actually there was an article that I found first and that’s what led me to the actual study.  The article was written by David Brooks of the New York Times and it was titled, the Opportunity Gap.  And it described a study that was conducted that shows that in this country there is a widening gap not just between what people currently have, but between the opportunities people currently have in our society. 

And it got my attention because it spoke to the issue of social mobility.  The idea that no matter where you come from or what your beginnings are, if you work hard and seek it out, you can find opportunity.  That’s one of the most fundamental American ideals there are.  To a large degree, it is what makes America, America.  As the saying goes, we are the land of opportunity. In this country, where you come from does not dictate your future.  You have the same opportunity that everyone else has.

Well this study says that increasingly, people from different backgrounds do not have the same opportunities in this country.  And that more and more where you come from, does dictate your future.  Specifically the structure of the family you’re born into plays one of the biggest roles.

The study explains that there are 4 factors that strongly predict lifetime success of children: time spent with parents, academic achievement, civic and social engagement and social trust.  And the study indicates that the gap in these factors between children born to upper class parents and children born to working class parents is widening at a fast rate.  More affluent citizens have always had a relative advantage when it came to these things.  But over the last 30 years, the gap has widened significantly.  Your family background is now more likely than ever to determine your future success.  What that means is that children from working class families are much less likely today to move up the ladder of success than they were a generation ago.

Now, family structure plays a large role in that.  The number of children who are raised in single parent households in this country is 25%.  That rate is expected to be in the mid 30’s by 2030.  The number of children born out of wedlock in this country has increased from 11% in 1970 to 41% in 2009.    

The study shows that children raised in single parent homes perform poorer academically.  They get lower grades and test scores, and are less likely to finish high school and attend college.  It’s also been shown that because children from single parent homes have family lives that are more stressful and a little less stable, they are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems such as anxiety and depression.

It’s also been shown that children raised in single parent households become sexually active and have children at a younger age.  So there’s evidence there of a perpetuation of the cycle.

Now one of the biggest factors affecting family structure is the education level of the parents.  An alarming stat the study points out is that only 5% of births out of wedlock are to a parent who has a college degree.  More than 50% of births out of wedlock are to a parent who has a high school diploma or less.  So a person with a high school diploma or less is 10 times more likely to have children out of wedlock than a person with a college degree or more.

Why is family structure significant?  The study points out that when both parents are present in a household, there tends to be more time invested in the children of that household.  And that’s one of the major indicators, it turns out, of future success.  It amounts to more time being spent with a child on social and cognitive skills such as reading books to them, playing with them or taking them to activities such as soccer practice.  If the parents are college educated, then that time gap is even greater, the study shows.  It adds up to almost an extra hour invested in the children per day. 

Another major indicator of future success is participation in extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports. The participation rate in clubs for children from upper class homes is 75%.  While the participation rate for children from working class homes is at 55%.  And not only is it lower, but it’s at 55% and dropping.  Whereas the rate for children from upper class homes is holding steady. 

The gap in participation rates for sports is just as pronounced.  For children from upper class homes it’s 50% and climbing.  For children from working class homes it’s 25% and dropping.  Why is that important? Studies show that participation in extracurricular activities builds leadership skills and increases self-esteem.  It’s also been shown that students who participate in these activities have higher test scores in school, lower dropout rates and higher rates of college attendance.

The study shows that there’s also a growing gap in attendance of religious services.  Children from upper class homes attend religious services around 30 times a year.  While children from working class homes attend religious services less than 20 times a year. And that number is dropping.

It’s been shown that attending religious services fosters more social connections in society, and not necessarily religious related connections.  For example, people who attend religious services are more likely to volunteer for a charity and help others find jobs or around their houses.  It’s also been shown that attending religious services makes a person more likely to learn civic skills and engage in healthy behaviors, and less likely to engage in risky behavior.

There’s also a gap in social trust among children from different backgrounds.  The percentage of children who believe that most people can be trusted is about 30% for children from upper class homes.  For children from working class homes, it’s about half that.  The reason that’s important is because children from working class homes will often find themselves living in neighborhoods with other working class people like themselves.  And In terms of community interaction, people with less social trust find themselves living in communities where crime is higher, life is more stressful, and local government works less well.

There’s a lot of talk of culture wars in this country right now.  There has been for decades.  And it’s always been painted as liberal vs. conservative, or young vs. old, or new generation vs. old generation.  But it seems that now we are starting to see evidence that reveals the consequences of some of these differences.  The percentage of children who are raised in less traditional family structures, specifically single parent homes, is 27%.  That number has tripled since 1960 where it remained constant for 80 some-odd years.

That’s significant because children from single parent homes are 5 times as likely to live in poverty than children who live with both parents.  On average they spend less time with parents, they’re less likely to take part in extracurricular activities, they’re less likely to attend religious services or volunteer for causes, and they’re also less likely to trust in their fellow citizens and communities.

And these are the very factors that determine life success.  The widening gap in these factors between the more fortunate among us and the less fortunate among us is not just troubling in and of itself.  The concern is that it’s self perpetuating.  The more fortunate and the more successful among us tend to marry other successful and educated people and raise more successful, and better educated kids and so on.  While the less fortunate tend to do the same with their counterparts and the cycle continues.

The danger here, the study points out, is that we’re becoming a class society.  A society that is more and more divided.  Not by politics or even tax bracket, but by class and education.  And these are the factors that are hardest to overcome.  They have the biggest impact on a person’s potential. More than region, race or gender.  For example the study points out that the achievement gap is now more than twice as large as the race gap. 

A society divided by class is troubling because it creates an America that is not socially mobile.  An America where your success is not dictated by your potential, but rather by the family you were born into.  We’ve got to take another look at the importance we place on family values.  Because if we don’t, we’re risking a divided future that strikes at the very heart of who we are.

That’s our show for this evening, we hope you enjoyed it.  Remember that you can join the conversation with In the News on both Twitter and Facebook at itnshow, that’s itnshow.  Thanks for tuning in everybody.  We’ll see you next time.