My memories of summer include bug bites, games of kick-the-can, swimming lessons, and countless hours curled up in a chair reading. My kids have finally reached the age where they experience summer the way I remember it. Penny, who is 6 ½, and William, almost 4, go to camp two days a week. They swim, do arts and crafts, play on the playground, and make new friends. The highlight of camp so far has been Penny receiving her "duck badge" when she swam from one side of the pool to the other and earned the right to swim in the deep end.
The other three weekdays vary. They've gone with their babysitter to the playground and the library. We've taken trips to the beach with plastic buckets and water shoes, and they've scraped their knees and thrown rocks and collected as many varieties of seaweed as they can find. We've created obstacle courses in the front yard. Most days they wander next door to visit their great-grandmother. They know the afternoons hold "quiet times" while their sister Marilee, who is 18 months old, takes a nap. Penny has learned how to read books out loud to herself. William has started writing in a journal. They've almost forgotten the TV exists.
This simple experience of play and learning and exploring and resting seems to me like a quintessential American summertime, and yet I was reminded recently that my children's summer is a mark of privilege. As David Brooks wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, "The children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities." Using recent data from Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, Brooks outlines the distinctions in time, money, and experiences offered to children from different socio-economic backgrounds. Brooks notes that these differences have increased dramatically over the course of the past few decades. Income inequality has led to an ever-growing opportunity gap for children.
In 2010, David Van Drehle reported on the problem of lazy summers in a cover article for Time magazine called The Case Against Summer Vacation:
". . . summer vacation is among the most pernicious, if least acknowledged, causes of achievement gaps in America's schools. Children with access to high-quality experiences keep exercising their minds and bodies at sleepaway camp, on family vacations, in museums and libraries, and enrichment classes. Meanwhile, children without resources languish on street corners or in front of glowing screens."
My kids' experience of summer is not the norm, and for many poor children in America, summer is simply an opportunity to fall behind their more affluent peers.
Conservatives argue that the income gap, and thus the opportunity gap, can be largely attributed to individual choices. Work harder, earn more, reduce the gap. Liberals argue that societal forces create the disparities. Tax the wealthy, create programs for the poor, reduce the gap. Whether we blame individual parents or blame the social structures, however, no one is pointing a finger at the kids. And yet the kids suffer not only in their early years, but throughout their lives, as a result of this chasm.
Liberals and conservatives need to come together in support of America's children, and therefore in support of America's future. As Brooks writes, "Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing . . . Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts . . ."
Which brings me to President Obama's new stump speech. Although the Bush-Era tax cuts do not expire until December, President Obama has begun to make the case for keeping these tax rates in place for 98 percent of the American public. Let's pause for a moment. A Democratic President is trying to convince a Republican Congress to keep 98 percent of the tax cuts their leader instituted. For most people, 98 percent counts as an A+. But because Obama has also called for a return to a higher tax rate for those who make more than $250,000 per year, Republicans continue to resist this measure. Conservatives could call it a victory that 98 percent of their tax cuts survived a Democratic administration and view the tax hike as an opportunity to reduce the deficit. They could also use the tax hike to provide support for programs like Head Start already in place to give low-income children opportunities to learn.
As David Brooks notes, however, addressing the opportunity gap is not simply a matter of throwing money towards programs. It's also a matter of supporting the health and well-being of children by advocating for stable families. In Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Donald Stern, the Director of Public Health, has declared fatherlessness a public health problem, and he is seeking to address it through the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative. Programs like this one put public funds towards social values that impact the entire community for good.
Acknowledging the opportunity gap that leads to an achievement gap is critical in order to care for our nations' children. If there is any area in which Republicans and Democrats should be able to come together, through changes in the tax code and in our rhetoric about families, it's this one. Let's hope Republicans keep their tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans while simultaneously reverting to the Clinton-Era tax rate for the very wealthiest among us. And let's hope our kids will benefit.