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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

The American Dream: Slipping Away?

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There is a national ethos among Americans that captures our faith in progress, opportunity, and striving. It's the belief that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed and prosper regardless of your original social status or the circumstances of your birth. This American dream has given hope to people born without privilege, and it's one of the main reasons people have often struggled to come to the United States from around the world.
But many people are now beginning to fear that the American dream is slipping away. Economic inequality is real and growing. Between 1977 and 2007, the income of families at the 99th percentile increased by 90 percent; the income of those at the bottom 20th percentile, by just 7 percent (Duncan & Murnane, 2011). Further, the unemployment rate remains dispiritingly high. Especially among those with a high school education or less, the Great Recession wreaked havoc among working-class families' employment (Carnevale & Rose, 2011).
Astonishing increases in the degree of residential segregation are exacerbating these circumstances, according to demographer Douglas Massey (2007). Those with money are more likely to live in homogeneously privileged neighborhoods and interact almost exclusively with other affluent people. Those without money are increasingly confined to homogeneously poor neighborhoods, yielding a density of material deprivation that is unprecedented in U.S. history.
These stark inequalities have become fodder for increasingly intractable debates among politicians and pundits. More important, however, is what these statistics mean for educating our children and keeping the hope of upward mobility through hard work alive. Are there still real opportunities for all children? Or is the American dream now an empty promise?

Early Experiences and Inequality

On the basis a 10-year study that my colleagues and I conducted of two neighborhoods within the confines of Philadelphia, one of poverty and the other of privilege (Neuman & Celano, 2012), one could argue that our fears are real. Although the dream of upward mobility still exists, it has become far more difficult for many to accomplish.
Our work in these two neighborhoods was guided by the theory that the amount of early access to print and the quality of adult support young children receive set in motion a process that either accelerates or delays literacy development and knowledge acquisition (Stanovich, 1986). Children learn about literacy through experiences and observations of the written language they encounter in their everyday lives. They construct an understanding of how print works through independent explorations of print and signs, interactions around books and other print resources, and participation with others engaged in both enjoyable and purposeful literacy activities. These early experiences provide opportunities to learn about the spelling-to-sound code, building preparatory skills that are essential for learning to read.
Those who are not initiated early on through such environmental print exposure are likely to experience greater difficulty in breaking the spelling-to-sound code. They come to school needing specialized help, and the remediation exercises they receive expose them to less text than the reading exercises that are given to their more skilled peers. They often find themselves working with materials that are too difficult for them to read—or too easy for them to learn from. This combination of difficulties in decoding, lack of practice, and inappropriate materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences. Children struggle to develop fluency in reading, further draining their capacity for comprehending text.
But it doesn't end there. The vicious cycle accelerates. As the Common Core State Standards emphasize, children gain knowledge through text. Knowledge disparities, therefore, grow as a result of these differences in reading experiences. Those who read more are creating and using greater pools of knowledge. Greater knowledge use enhances students' speed of information acquisition, which over time is likely to accelerate a knowledge gap between those who have access and those who do not (Neuman & Celano, 2006). Although the have-nots gain knowledge, the haves gain it faster. By gaining faster, they gain more. The result, we hypothesized, leads to the social stratification of information capital that occurs among those who live in affluent and poor communities.
Unfortunately, this is what we found.

Two Neighborhoods

Like many cities throughout the United States, Philadelphia is a city of contrasts. It has become home to many immigrants (Polish, Italian, Irish, Russian, Hispanic, Chinese, and Southeast Asian) and African Americans as a result of industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Philadelphia is known as a city of neighborhoods: Its residents live in neat brick row homes as well as back alleys and decaying buildings. Some children in this city will grow up in abject poverty; others, in highly privileged circumstances.
We chose to study two neighborhoods that were representative of these contrasts. Kensington, also known as the Badlands, is a dense, multiethnic community consisting of Puerto Rican, black, Vietnamese, Eastern European, and Caucasian residents with a poverty rate of 90 percent, almost 29 percent unemployment, and approximately 5,000 children under age 17. In contrast, Chestnut Hill is a highly gentrified neighborhood, 80 percent Caucasian and 20 percent black, with a child population of about 1,200. Families there tend to be educated professionals, with the average home costing in the $400,000s. The neighborhood borders several large parks and is somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of the city.
For more than 10 years, we examined how these contrasting ecologies of affluence and poverty might contribute to disparities in reading and the development of information capital (see details in Neuman & Celano, 2012). We engaged in observations, interviews, and activities, using many different analytic tools to understand how these environments might influence children's opportunities for education.

Stark Differences

Differences in Print Resources

Right from the beginning, there are differences in the amount and quality of print children in these two neighborhoods are exposed to in their worlds. For example, a 3-year-old in Chestnut Hill would likely see signs with iconic symbols in good readable condition, professionally designed with clear colors and strong graphics. In contrast, many of the signs in the Badlands neighborhood are covered with graffiti with taggers' distinctive signatures, rendering them impossible for a young child to decipher. We found that 74 percent of signs in the Badlands were in poor condition, compared with 1 percent in Chestnut Hill.
The disparities continue when it comes to the availability of print resources appropriate for young children. In Chestnut Hill, we found 11 stores that sold print materials for children, 7 of which even had special sections just for children. In contrast, the Badlands, with a far greater density of children, had only 4 places that carried children's print materials.
Even more troubling were the differences in choices available to a parent selecting a book for a child. Children in Chestnut Hill had access to thousands of book, magazine, and comic book titles, whereas children in the Badlands could access only a small fraction of materials. Our calculations indicated about 13 titles for every child in the community of privilege, and about 1 title for about every 20 children in the community of poverty.
Schools and outside institutions, like the library—often considered safety nets for those who lack resources—did not alter this pattern. In Chestnut Hill preschools, average book condition was excellent, with a wide assortment to choose from; book condition for those in the Badlands was merely adequate, with a limited selection. Differences were even more stark in elementary school libraries. Schools in Chestnut Hill had more than two times the selection of books compared to those in the Badlands. Further, other resources to support children's reading, like computers and trained librarians, were missing in the Badlands.
In short, differences in the economic circumstances of children who live in these neighborhoods translated into extraordinary differences in the availability of print resources.

Differences in Adult Supports

Material resources represent only one kind of support in creating an environment for reading and the development of information capital. Even more important is the type of adult support and mentoring that children receive.
In a now-classic study, Annette Lareau (2003) identified parenting practices associated with social class. According to her research, parents from middle- and upper-middle-class families typically engage in a child-rearing strategy known as concerted cultivation, consciously developing children's use of language, reasoning skills, and negotiation abilities. In contrast, working-class and poor parents tend to practice—not necessarily by choice—a more hands-off type of child rearing known as natural growth. These parents generally have less education and time to impress on their children the values that will give them an advantage in school. Their children often spend less time in the company of adults and more time with other children in self-directed, open-ended play. The differing strategies reinforce class divisions.
Spending hundreds of hours in the public libraries in each neighborhood watching parent–child behaviors, we found a consistent pattern. In the spirit of concerted cultivation, toddlers and preschoolers in Chestnut Hill were carefully guided in selecting appropriate reading materials. Activities were highly focused, with the accompanying adult suggesting books, videos, or audiobooks to check out. The parent clearly appeared to be the arbiter for book selection, noting, "That book is too hard for you," "That is too easy," or "This one might be better."
In contrast, children in the Badlands largely entered the library alone or with a peer, sometimes with a sibling, but rarely with an adult. They would wander in, maybe flip through some pages of a book, and wander out. Without adult assistance, a child would pick up a book, look at the cover, pause for a moment to try to figure it out, and then put it down. Occasionally an older child might help locate a book or read to a younger child. But more often than not, preschooler activity would appear as short bursts, almost frenetic in nature.
To examine how these patterns may influence early reading development, we counted the age of the child, whether the child was accompanied by an adult, and the content and amount of text that might be read to children in each community. We found a disturbing pattern: For every hour we spent observing at the library in Chestnut Hill, more than three-quarters of the time—47 minutes—was spent with an adult reading to a child. During the same time period, not one adult entered the preschool area in the Badlands. By our estimate, children in Chestnut Hill heard nearly 14 times the number of words read in print per library visit as children in the Badlands.

Differences in Independent Reading

We suspected that the early years established a pattern of reading behavior that would affect later development. Consequently, we next focused on the tween years (ages 10–13), when students need to read challenging informational text independently and use self-teaching strategies to learn essential academic vocabulary and concepts.
To examine independent reading, we spent hours in the public library in each neighborhood, recording what students were reading, the average grade level of the text, and whether it was informational or entertainment reading activity. We then conducted a similar analysis of students' use of the computers.
We found an all-too-predictable pattern. Perhaps most alarming was the difference in the challenge level of the texts students selected to read. Students in the Badlands tended to select easy materials. Although 58 percent of the materials read were at grade level, 42 percent were designed for younger children. It was not uncommon to see a 13-year-old boy reading Highlights magazine or Arthur's Eyes, a book typically favored by the preschool crowd. Challenging words related to academic disciplines are rarely found in these kinds of books and magazines. In contrast, 93 percent of students from Chestnut Hill tended to read at their age level, with a small percentage (7 percent) reading more-challenging above-level materials.
Further, there were striking differences in the amount of time spent reading and the genre of text selected. Students from the Badlands spent considerably less time reading than students from Chestnut Hill, and the majority of reading time in the Badlands was spent with entertainment materials. A similar pattern occurred with computers and the Internet in the Badlands library: the majority of time was spent watching movies or game-like shows. For students in Chestnut Hill, these patterns were reversed. Most of the students' time was spent on informational texts. In fact, these students spent about 12 times the amount of time on informational reading materials in print and about 5 times more on informational websites than they spent on entertainment content in print and online.
Consequently, by the time students are in their tweens, we see a pattern of reading that leads to a knowledge gap. Reading challenging informational text enhances the speed of information gathering and knowledge acquisition. Reading low-level text of questionable value is likely to keep one at status quo, or worse, be a waste of time. Continued unabated, this gap between the "information haves" and "information have-nots" could lead to even greater social and economic inequality in our society that will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

Changing the Trajectory

I have painted a bleak picture of the gap between poverty and privilege not to suggest its inevitability but to galvanize people to action. So what can we do? Consider the following steps.

Un-level the Playing Field

Programs like Title I are based on a policy of "leveling the playing field," ensuring that education resources for poor communities are equal to those for the more affluent. But the notion of providing equal resources is only helpful when none of the competing partners has an advantage at the outset. As we have seen, that is certainly not the case for students who come from poor neighborhoods when compared with more affluent peers.
We need to tip the balance not by equalizing funding but by providing more resources and additional supports to students in poor neighborhoods. Not just extra funding, but additional human resources are needed. Training paraprofessionals for such simple activities as reading one-on-one with children in libraries like those in the Badlands could have enormous benefits later on.

Strengthen Parent Involvement

School programs often profess the importance of parent involvement, but schools rarely offer sustained, intensive parent involvement training programs. We need programs that help parents become the advocates they wish to be by teaching them about the skills and strategies children will need to be successful in school. Such programs will help them make judgments about what kinds of language and literacy experiences to look for in preschool and child-care settings, what to look for in initial reading instruction in kindergarten and the early grades, what to ask principals and other policymakers who make decisions regarding reading instruction, and how to determine whether their child is making adequate progress in reading or needs additional instruction.

Engage Students' Minds

Far too often, people underestimate the capabilities of students who live in poor neighborhoods, equating poverty with low ability. In reality, however, these students are eager to learn and develop greater expertise when given opportunities to do so.
In public policy, our targets for these students have been to help them graduate from high school and become college-ready. In fact, if students from poor families are to have a fighting chance, they will need far more. They will need a rich knowledge base. They will need to learn how to participate in a new kind of information fabric in which learning, playing, and creative thinking interact in ways that not only use existing knowledge, but also advance it in new directions. We deceive them and ourselves if we expect any less.

Economically Integrate Schools

Schools today reflect their neighborhoods. Throughout the United States, schools are economically segregated, exacerbating the problems of inequality.
Schools in poor areas struggle for many reasons, but among the most prominent are their rotating faculty of inexperienced teachers and administrators and their low-level curriculum. In contrast, schools in affluent areas are more stable, with more highly trained teachers, rigorous curriculum, fewer discipline problems, and more support from volunteers. Studies have shown that economic integration can begin to change this scenario (Kahlenberg, 2001).

Reclaiming the Dream

Americans are a resilient people. We remain a formidable force in the knowledge economy. Nevertheless, the last decade's economic chaos and rising inequality has led some to question whether there is a future for the American dream. For those of us who believe that this concept is still what defines us and makes America great, it is time to renew our determination to recapture the American dream and make it a reality for all our children.

Trends of the Times

High-income families now spend nearly 7 times as much on their children's development as low-income families do.

Source: Kornrich, S., & Furstenberg, Fl (2013). Investing in children: Changes in parental spending on children, 1972–2007. Demography, 50(1), 1–23.


Carnevale, A., & Rose, S. (2011). The undereducated American. Washington, DC: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Duncan, G., &Murnane, R. (Eds.). (2011). Whither opportunity? New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Kahlenberg, R. (2001). All together now. Washington, DC: Brookings.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Massey, D. (2007). Categorically unequal. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. (2006). The knowledge gap: Implications of leveling the playing field for low-income and middle-income children. Reading Research Quarterly, 41, 176–201.

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. (2012). Giving our children a fighting chance: Affluence, literacy, and the development of information capital. New York: Teachers College Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360–406.

Susan B. Neuman is professor and chair of teaching and learning at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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