TOP Report - Toward a Thriving Future: Closing the Opportunity Gap for Oregon's Kids

The Opportunity Gap: A Call To Action from Robert Putnam, Author of Our Kids and Bowling Alone

In recent years, there has been a widening opportunity gap for America’s children: Lower-income children are becoming less and less likely to have access to the key ingredients necessary for future success.

This opportunity gap is the result of an increasing wealth gap between lower- and higher-income families, decreasing economic mobility, and increasing socio-economic segregation in our communities.

A few years ago, my colleagues and I traveled the country to hear firsthand from families on both sides of this opportunity gap. We spent time in Bend getting to know Kayla and her family. Kayla’s childhood was characterized by instability and uncertainty — changing family arrangements, periods without consistent housing, poverty and a lack of positive adult role models. While she has hopes for the future, including travel and college, she has no concrete plans nor any support or guidance to help her achieve these dreams.

In contrast, Andrew grew up a few miles away from Kayla in a strikingly different Bend neighborhood. He has lived in the same comfortable house his whole life, with both his parents actively engaged in his upbringing. His family’s wealth afforded him myriad opportunities, including music and sports. His businessman father modeled and coached him in financial responsibility and planning, and connected Andrew with a community leader for an internship in Andrew’s area of interest. Andrew currently is in college with several career goals and concrete plans for turning those goals into reality.

The opportunity gap flies in the face of one of our country’s most dearly held values, which is the belief that every person, through his or her own hard work and perseverance, has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. This is not a “blue” issue or a “red” issue: Even in these fractured political times we can agree that this American dream should be available for all children.

This report highlights data on Oregon’s children, and confirms that national trends are mirrored in Oregon. It is clear that Oregon’s low-income children, children of color and rural children are not on an equal playing field with their higher-income peers, something my colleagues and I saw firsthand with Kayla and Andrew. Our challenge is not to hold back the Andrews of Oregon, but to boost the Kaylas.

The report also highlights just a few of the organizations that are working tirelessly to address the opportunity gap — for each organization mentioned here, there are dozens more doing equally important work in every corner of the state.

For some, this report may be a wake-up call; for others, it may be a confirmation of important work already underway. For all of us, may this report serve as a call to action: Become involved in your neighborhood and community; mentor a young person; support a youth-serving organization with your time, talent or resources; or encourage your elected leaders to enact policies that ensure all children are given the opportunity to forge their own American dream. This gap in opportunity is unacceptable, and it is up to all of us to ensure that all our children can reach their full potential.