Growing class divide means some children may be denied a generational legacy

Once, as part of a group exercise to identify personal values, I had to answer the question, “For what would you be willing to die?”

“I would rush into the street to save a child!” I said. My colleague nodded his agreement and we talked a little more about how becoming a parent changes your perspective on what should be valued. So, when it came time to report back to the larger group, I described our shared generational commitment to protect those younger.

“Oh!” he interjected, “I didn’t mean I’d die for any child; I was talking about my children.”

My partner’s narrow protection of his genetic progeny shocked me — and reminded me never to ask him to babysit. However, many of us do recognize a wider common good, a place where all children and youth are protected and secured by the village that is us.

Youth are cited as one of the top concerns for residents across our city’s neighbourhoods. United Way Toronto’s environmental scan, Torontonians Speak Out, identified this in 2002, so that it became one of the community funder’s top three priorities (neighbourhoods and newcomers being the other two).

More recently, Trish Hennessy, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), has been doing focus groups with Environics, to understand Torontonians’ voting records and public policy priorities. Among other interesting findings, she has found some deep resonance around issues of legacy. This is among voters who have voted in the current municipal administration, they too are talking about the next generation. As this boomer bulge ages, it is considering what it wants to leave behind and to whom.

The question is what shape that legacy will be, and for whom will we leave it?

Recent comments from Bowling Alone author and professor Robert Putnam cast a dreary light on the future of North America’s children. In the interview cited in Harvard’s Social Capital Blog, Putnam argued that, while Americans are seeing more

integration along religious and racial lines, there is an opposite trend when it comes to class, mainly, he believes, because of the widening gap in incomes. Americans are less likely today to marry outside their class. Children from lower classes are less likely to spend time with their peers or take part in community activities and have less confidence, while the trend for middle-class children is the opposite.

In sum, he explains, children have very different access to life opportunities dependent on who their parents are.

This growing income gap is not news to Hennessy’s colleagues at the CCPA; economists Armine Yalnizyan and Hugh Mackenzie have shown that unless we think about growing levels of inequality, many more will be further left behind on an economic level. The lack of economic opportunities has similar echos around access to education, housing, and other social determinants of health.

Mobility between classes may also be on decline in Canada, although the Conference Board of Canada ranks us 5th out of 11 peer countries.. American mobility is even worse, according an editor at Time magazine and others those who monitor such things.

Yet, youth are still hopeful. For instance, Joseph Rowntree study released this fall in the U.K. showed that youth from low-income families in the U.K. do have aspirations for higher education. Parents, too, want high achievement for their children. In the last Toronto District School Board (TDSB) student/parent census (2008), almost 9⁄10 parents said they want their kids to go to university. Among low–income families, that only fell to 8⁄10.

So, are these our children, too? Will we provide them the opportunities and encouragement they want?

I believe we will. We must.

The upward mobility gap. Op-ed., L.A. Times, January 2011

Generations disagree on public funding priorities: new poll data, University of British Columbia, December 2011

We Must Make Equity a National Priority,” Mitchell Silver, American Planning Association

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