Media Highlights

Income gap needs presidential priority, local action

by The Des Moines Register   •  

One pressing national issue that presidential candidates in both parties agree on is the growing income inequality. The challenge is finding agreement on what the president or the federal government should do about it.

Candidates retreat to predictable camps: Democrats calling for taxing the rich and spending the proceeds on social programs, and Republicans pointing to federal regulations that stifle job growth. The conversation usually ends there.

Presidential candidates have a 30,000-foot perspective of the issue, however, while economic inequality must be addressed at ground zero in every community. The president and Congress have a role to play, but it should be a supportive role, giving communities incentives and targeted resources.

The need for local action is clear from the recent work of Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, who visited with the Register’s editorial and news staff last week. Putnam, known for his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone” about America’s unraveling social fabric, is now trying to engage presidential aspirants in both parties on what he calls the “opportunity gap.”

Putnam cites research that points to a growing and solidifying divide: Children at the top have the greatest opportunity, thanks to two nurturing parents who guide them toward advanced education; children at the bottom face staggering obstacles to success. America has become a “hereditary aristocracy,” he said, not seen since the Gilded Age of the 1890s.

Putnam is making the rounds in early presidential caucus and primary states in the hope of getting candidates to focus on closing that gap. The title of his book exploring the issue, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” comes from his experience growing up in a small Ohio town where all kids in town were everyone’s concern. Restoring that shared concern and expanding opportunity includes education from early childhood through high school and beyond.

Iowa has taken steps in that direction with investments in preschool, elementary and secondary education.

Iowa’s community colleges offer a path to opportunity, but they have increasingly focused on making sure students finish their education. Des Moines Area Community College, for example, requires every student to take a class on how to navigate the college system, and it has hired more advisors and navigators to help students “stay on the rails,” as DMACC President Rob Denson puts it.

Community leaders in Iowa understand the need to target resources at those most vulnerable to falling through the cracks. The United Way of Central Iowa, for example, retooled its giving program in 2009 to measure how well its dollars are spent on three key goals: raising graduation rates, increasing the number of financially self-sufficient families and improving health.

The Iowa caucuses are an opportunity to address what the federal government can do to help all communities overcome the opportunity gap. That will be the topic of a candidate forum in November at Des Moines Area Community College planned by Opportunity Nation, a national bipartisan coalition of businesses, nonprofits, educators and community leaders working to expand economic mobility.

The next president won’t close the income and opportunity gaps, but he or she can use the bully pulpit to lead the nation in that direction.

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The Des Moines Register

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