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Robert Putnam and Atlanta leaders seek to bridge ‘opportunity gap’

Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam addresses Atlanta group. Slide in the background outlines Putnam's ideas to help bring change to Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta prides itself as being the birthplace of the civil rights movement and a place where people of different races can succeed.

But it’s hard to reconcile that truth with the harsh reality that Atlanta in the 21st Century has had the largest, most rapidly growing gap between rich and poor of any major American city.

In a similar vein, Atlanta has the second-lowest rate of intergenerational social mobility of all major American cities – second only to Charlotte, N.C.

Kasim Reed Robert Putnam

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed speaks with Robert Putnam, author of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Putnam of Harvard University was at the Corporate Volunteer Council Atlanta on the Opportunity Gap. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The “opportunity gap” in Atlanta is a red flag to the kind of city we want to be.

Ideally, all residents in Atlanta would have ample opportunities to succeed in life – no matter where they lived or where they went to school or what their family life was like.

When the Brookings Institute in 2015 once again identified Atlanta as the city with the greatest inequality in the United States, the Corporate Volunteer Council of Atlanta – composed of companies with civic engagement strategies – decided it was time to act.

“This was the tipping point that made us realize that we must bring together leaders from the corporate, nonprofit, foundation and public sectors to work better collectively to affect positive change,” said Cheryl B. Kortemeier, executive director of the CVC of Atlanta.

“Our members have been doing good in the community for years,” she added. “That said, several of our long-time corporate leaders have regularly stressed that we need to do more as a business community to address the “root cause” of Atlanta’s most pressing societal problems.”

The Corporate Volunteer Council met with Alicia Philipp of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and Chris Allers of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, and they agreed that better educating Atlantans of every age would be an effective cornerstone for improving Atlanta.

So they decided to invite Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam to talk about his best-selling book, “Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis,” which features his research on Atlanta’s opportunity gap.

“We envisioned a half-day symposium that would highlight Atlanta’s unique challenges and identify specific skills and tools needed to do something about it,” Kortemeier said. “We also wanted to help foster new cross-sector relationships.”

Putnam visited with a diverse group of Atlanta leaders on Feb. 29, when he encouraged them to focus on the “opportunity gap” problem facing our city.

Putnam spoke of when he was growing up in the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio where “how well you did would depend on you and now how well your parents did.”

Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam addresses Atlanta group. Slide in the background outlines Putnam’s ideas to help bring change to Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Putnam warned that “we are becoming two societies” – the poor and the affluent. And the children in the two societies are treated differently.

“All kids do dumb things,” Putnam said. “When an affluent kid does bad things, the airbags inflate. Poor kids have no airbags. Our poor are suffering from doing exactly what the affluent kids did, but they need airbags.”

Putnam provided a series of ideas of how to address the growing economic segregation in the United States.

Boost jobs and wages. Reform the criminal justice system. Provide high quality early learning opportunities for all children. Help parents with family leave and coaching. Invest in public education, and end pay to play for extra-curricular activities. Pay top teachers more to teach in low income schools. Provide more intensive mentoring of kids. And open up new opportunities for kids – community colleges, vocational training and apprenticeships.

Putnam concluded that if we are going to fix this problem, “it’s going to happen at the grass roots level.” Then he spoke specifically to the Atlanta leaders. “I think you would make a major difference to America if you followed up on this.”

The Corporate Volunteer Council is following through with various partners.

“At this point, several law firm representatives serving on our symposium planning committee recommended that we bring in Boston’s FSG to teach us how to best leverage the Collective Impact model,” Kortemeier said. “Our hope is that the CVC’s “Bridging the Opportunity Gap:  The Power of Collective Impact” program helped arm participants with new tools for collaboration that will help them more effectively attack Atlanta’s problems at their core.”

Kortemeier added that participants are eager to jump in, and the Council is encouraging them to get involved with one of Atlanta’s existing collective impact initiatives such as Learn4Life, Neighborhood Nexus, and GEEARS.

Jeff Rosensweig

Jeff Rosensweig addresses the Rotary Club of Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“Strengthening Atlanta and lessening our income inequality gap will take time,” Kortemeier said, “but we are hopeful that the CVC’s program will serve as a springboard for great things to come.”

Right after Putnam spoke to the Atlanta leaders at the Loudermilk Center, the Rotary Club of Atlanta was being addressed by Jeff Rosensweig, an Emory University business professor, who spoke about the international economy and its impact on Atlanta.

One of the last slides that Rosensweig shared with his fellow Rotarians projected a population growth of 1.67 billion people between 2015 and 2040.

China actually would lose population by .02 percent. The “advanced economies” – which includes the United States and Europe – would grow by 3.5 percent. Latin America would grow by 6.8 percent. India would grow by 19.2 percent. Other countries in Asia would grow by 25 percent. And the population in Africa is expected to grow by 46.3 percent.

Atlanta can do its best to bridge the “opportunity gap” within our city.

But we need to also be concerned about the growing global divide between the affluent and the poor around the world. We can’t forget we are living in the wealthiest nation on earth – even considering the “opportunity gap” that exists here at home.

If we can bridge the gap here, we can then seek to build bridges of opportunity with people living in less fortunate nations around the globe.

We’ve got to start somewhere. It might as well be in our hometown.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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  1. OdettaMacLeishW March 8, 2016 9:41 am

    mariasaporta SaportaReport http://www.atltransformationalliance.org a collab working to close opportunity gaps thru data, arts, community engagement.Report

  2. scfranklin March 8, 2016 10:08 am

    Robert Putnam spoke at the Atlanta History Center last year just after his latest book was released. Thank goodness he has come back to Atlanta to address an even larger audience hosted by the Corporate Volunteer Council. Atlanta hosts many speakers but few who should move us to action more than Putnam. While as society we aren’t likely to reclaim the past, we can learn from it. Building a community consensus for changing our civic model to focus even more on the communities of Atlantans who don’t have full access to achieving the American Dream is part of the solution.Report

  3. Burroughston Broch March 8, 2016 10:37 pm

    Requiring that APS graduate literate students with either academic or vocational skills would be a great start.Report

  4. Cheryl Kortemeier March 8, 2016 10:49 pm

    Thank you for covering this important topic!Report

  5. JamesReese March 9, 2016 5:05 pm

    The real way to bridge the opportunity gap in Atlanta is to educate entire families in our schools. Children attend classes in a “flip the day environment” from 8 – 2pm doing the actual homework task that are normally left up to parents not prepared to help.The adults attend GED and job skill training for real jobs from 2:30p – 6:00 pm. The children are placed in an after-school environment where they can watch the lecture videos for the next day classes, have snacks, play and dinner with their parents at the school at 6:30 pm before sending everyone home. It’s a lot of work for volunteers but it changes the trajectory for families and the children will improve Atlanta and close the opportunity gap.

    The alternative is do the same thing and swell the ranks of criminal enterprises and children dropping out of school. Children want to learn but their environments help them to unlearn. Thus failure and drop out and the criminal justice system grows larger. Change their home life by getting to the people that influence them the most. Educate entire families.Report


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