A brighter future? No guarantee

Americans cling to the conviction that our kids can grow up to be anyone they want-no matter how humble their beginnings.

What you can do

Children’s advocates say one of the most important ways parents
can bolster their kids’ chances is to get active in changing public
policy.

“The ongoing state fiscal crisis continues to erode investments
in children and families,” says a July Voices for Illinois Children
policy bulletin.

A key issue to take up with state representatives before the
fall veto session, which begins in late November: Advocates believe
the House of Representatives should approve legislation passed by
the Senate to funnel an additional 5 million into General State
Aid and early childhood education.

Well after the shockwaves of the recession first rocked suburban and urban neighborhoods and corporate high-rises of the Gold Coast, nearly three-quarters of people in 2009 held fast to their conviction that hard work and personal talents trump being born into a wealthy family in the game of getting ahead in life.

All we have to do here in Illinois is look around to see it’s true.

Abraham Lincoln. Oprah Winfrey. Barack Obama.

Such social mobility came into question at this year’s Kids Count symposium in Chicago, where child and parenting advocates from across the state came together to brainstorm ways to fortify the future for the next crop of Illinois leaders, workers and innovators.

A reality check turned up some hard facts showing that Abe, Oprah and Obama may be the exception rather than the rule.

“Chicago’s kids aren’t moving up, they’re moving out,” says Sid Mohn, president of Heartland Alliance, a Chicago human rights organization. “…Out of opportunity, out of good jobs, and out of good health. We need to return to a time when kids could count on moving up and a brighter future than their parents.”

In Chicago and all across the country, a prominent school of sociologists says, kids who come up in poor homes pretty much stay poor while kids born into wealthy families tend to-you guessed it-prosper.

While we lay claim to social mobility as a unique attribute of the United States, the bitter truth is that other countries like Canada and Denmark boast far more mountable social ladders.

The reason it’s getting to be so hard to move from one class to another is that the middle class is an endangered social stratus, says Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist who specializes in economic and educational bias.

“When the rungs of the ladder get farther apart, it gets harder to climb up,” he says.

Apparently, the folks on the ground are getting the memo. Half of those surveyed in a new poll commissioned by The Economist think the next generation will have a lower quality of life, twice the number that thought living standards will improve.

In Chicago, the rungs of the ladders have been decaying for years.

Technology dimmed demand for middle-skilled workers and union busting drove wages downward. The recession swept job loss and foreclosure throughout the ‘burbs like a tsunami. Tax rolls tanked and state revenues sank. Budget cuts ravished social infrastructure like schools, recreational programs and crucial safety nets, policy experts at Voices for Illinois Children say.

In addition to mounting college loans and bleak job prospects, young Americans now have something else weighing them down: the widest wealth gap ever between the young and old.

Will our kids be better off than we are? It’s not the no-brainer we’d like it to be.

Slipping on life’s ladder

Higher education’s promise isn’t within reach for all

It was the day that deep-rooted dreams came true.

Felecia Oliver and her two sisters all earned the first college degrees in their family history. That spring, it looked like the sisters had boosted the family up a rung on the ladder of social status.

“It was the moment parents dream of for their children,” Oliver says.

“We all felt we had really traded up in the world,” says the 32-year-old single mother, known as Fee, who left Chicago for Galesburg in search of a kid-friendly place to raise her brood of three.

The 10 years that followed put a dimmer on prospects that seemed so bright on that day of dreams and diplomas.

With her degree gathering dust in a frame, Oliver brings in a modest-but livable-sum in her job hosting in-home sales parties. She thinks her three children-18, 13 and 2-are getting good support and a quality education in Galesburg. But, had she stayed in Chicago, she feels pretty sure the outlook would not be so sunny.

And her kids’ shot at college? While she urges them to make good grades and set their sights on higher education, like more and more parents in a post-recession world, she has no notion of where the money is going to come from.

Higher degrees of doubt

While inflating student debt looms as this decade’s second act to the foreclosure burst of the mid-2000s, new studies show that fewer and fewer parents think college fits in the family budget.

A quarter of a century ago, 40 percent of Americans believed that normal families could afford to send their kids to college. Today, 75 percent of Americans think so, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study. Today’s parents are doing cost-benefit analysis on the expense and pay-off of a college education in ways our grandparents never would have imagined.

A new study by student loan lender Sallie Mae finds that parents are spending less to help their children pay for college.

Oliver sees a catch-22 on her horizon when the time comes for her oldest, Isaiah, to apply for college. Isaiah’s father, a second-generation college grad, makes too much for Isaiah to get a college grant. At the same time, Oliver doesn’t earn enough to come up with tuition costs that, in Illinois public undergraduate schools, have shot up 150 percent over the past decade.

That’s the steepest hike in the Midwest, says Manya Khan, assistant director of the Fiscal Policy Center for the Chicago-based child advocacy agency Voices for Illinois Children. Ten years ago, average tuition was just under $4,200. Now it’s more than $10,000.

Most Americans are like Oliver. They still see college as the ticket to the next step on the social ladder, according to Timothy Smeeding, a national expert in child poverty and social inequality who, with other experts, penned books Persistence, Privilege and Parenting and Poor Kids in a Rich Country.

Yet, sharply rising college prices during the 1980s and ’90s, together with the growing inequality of family income, have raised the cost of college far more for low-income students than for the well-heeled. The slice of financial aid pie for low-income students simply is not as big as it was 50 years ago.

Late out of the gate

In Chicago and the suburbs, experts say, the problems really begin before kindergarten.

The ever-widening disparity in SAT scores and grade point averages in high school traces back to toddler time and closes doors on kids from families without cash, says Reardon.

“It’s not just the money,” he says. “There was a cultural shift in our thinking about what parents were supposed to do with their young children.”

The education gap broadened when Baby Boomers started raising their own babies in the 1970s and ’80s. These parents were highly college educated and very determined about securing their kids’ futures, Reardon says.

They gave their kids more attention, kicking off today’s model where higher-income parents make Herculean efforts in early childhood to lock in their kids’ academic prowess.

Poorer parents embark on the college quest later and with far fewer resources, sociologists say.

Moms and dads working double shifts to keep the lights on know they need to read to their kids. Struggling parents want to take their preschoolers to the planetarium and art museum and preschools that supply their growing minds with enriching experiences, too, Reardon says.

“You might know it’s important, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” Reardon says.

The climb up the social ladder is a series of baby steps, Khan says.

“It’s a proven fact that early childhood education is a key factor on how kids do later in life,” she says. “You can’t move up the social ladder and access opportunities if you don’t get a good start in the very early years of life.”

In Illinois, the chances of stepping up seem to trend downward.

Budget cuts over the last few years are keeping 18,000 kids out of preschool, Khan says.

With the proposed cut of $25 million this year, 8,000 3- and 4-year-olds will be staying home rather than going to preschool.

General State Aid, cut by $161 million from last year, has plunged to its lowest level in six years.

These large cuts will be the greatest blow to kids in already struggling school districts, where large numbers of low-income students depend heavily on state cash flow to keep learning happening, Khan says.

“It’s really all about making sure that kids are ready to make that critical step forward by investing in high-quality preschool and funding schools all along the way so they are prepared by the time they get to high school,” she says.

“You have to have opportunities on every step of the ladder in order to move up.”

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