Afterschool and the opportunity gap

Better access to extracurricular activities can build social capital in high-poverty communities.

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A growing consensus of experts agrees that lack of “social capital” plays a pivotal role in communities with concentrated poverty. For example, The New York TimesDavid Brooks suggested that “the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology,” while Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli asked whether social capital could be rebuilt to change the “troubled, isolated, hopeless lives” of the poor.

Two recent best sellers use ethnographic study and statistical analysis to show how social isolation, lack of close relationships or sense of belonging, and hopelessness – i.e., the lack of social capital — plays a powerful role in decisions about risk-taking, drugs, crime, school attendance, and unplanned pregnancy.   In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam gave powerful examples of the opportunity gap and lack of social capital in poor neighborhoods. In Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas detailed the loneliness and distrust felt by young women, many of whom chose to have a baby to find purpose, validation, and companionship.

Building social capital in high-poverty communities is a multi-faceted and complex challenge, with structural and cultural factors. But leaders can begin with one bipartisan solution that middle- and upper-class communities already well appreciate: Extracurricular activities.

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