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Closing the gap: Marshall conference explores on-ramps for southwest Minnesota children

MARSHALL -- Nearly 600 people showed up on a frigid Thursday morning to the Southwest Initiative Foundation's (SWIF) "Grow Our Own" event at Southwest Minnesota State University. The conference is aimed at finding ways to help disadvantaged kids ...

Robert Putnam, Harvard professor and political scientist, speaks at the "Grow Our Own" conference at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. Martina Baca / Daily Globe
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MARSHALL - Nearly 600 people showed up on a frigid Thursday morning to the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s (SWIF) “Grow Our Own” event at Southwest Minnesota State University. The conference is aimed at finding ways to help disadvantaged kids succeed.

Robert Putnam, Harvard professor and esteemed political scientist, was the first guest speaker. The ideas in his 2015 book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” provided the framework for the event’s message - that not everyone has an equal shot; there exists an opportunity gap that prevents many young people in southwest Minnesota and across the country, from reaching their potential.

Putnam called this inequality -  where kids born from poor parents are immediately much less likely to succeed than kids with wealthy parents - the “most serious threat facing our country.”

He told a true story of two girls whose grandfathers were born in Putnam’s hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, to provide an example of the phenomenon.

Miriam, Putnam’s granddaughter, was raised by two well-educated, well-off parents. She graduated from Haverford College in June and now has a great job.


The other Port Clinton grandfather, who Putnam gave a made-up name of Joe, didn’t go to college, but worked his way up, and for most of his career, had a higher income than Putnam. His kids graduated from high school and things were looking promising.

“Then, the bottom fell out,” Putnam said. “It fell out of the Port Clinton economy and the bottom fell out for the working class of most of America.”

Joe’s kids never got steady jobs, but still had kids of their own. Joe’s grandchild, nicknamed Mary Sue for the story, had the odds stacked against her as soon as she was born. Her mom became a stripper and her dad left her mom for another woman, who hit her and refused to feed her. Mary  Sue had a baby at age 13. She was caught trafficking marijuana at 16 and failed out of high school.

Putnam’s story provides an analogy for the opportunity gap - Mary Sue never had a chance to do as well as Miriam growing up under such terrible conditions.

“These are two young women - Miriam and Mary Sue - who are the same age, both granddaughters of Port Clinton, but they live in different universes,” Putnam said. “Neither of them could imagine the future that awaits the other.”

The problem for Putnam and SWIF to solve, is how to level the playing field for disadvantaged children. Only 8 percent of low-income students with medium test scores graduate college, compared with 51 percent of students from high-income backgrounds. Putnam laid forth some solutions that he felt were feasible.

For one, returning funding for extracurricular activities at schools, and ending “pay to play” for school sports. Putnam said school sports were key for a child’s development, but poor parents were not able to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to have their kid play football.

The biggest goal laid out at the conference was establishing early childhood education. Eighty-five percent of a person’s brain development occurs by the time they’re five years old. Wealthy children enter kindergarten more than a full year year ahead of bottom-third children, having had almost 1,400 more hours of developmental time with their parents who are able to give them attention. Having good early childhood education programs, according to Putnam, help even the odds.


Sen. Al Franken spoke through a video message about the need for early childhood education as well, claiming it returned from $7 to $16 for every dollar invested.

Putnam said it would be expensive to provide good early childhood education, but America was able to do something similar in the 20th century, when community leaders decided they wanted to build high schools for all students, not just those whose parents could afford to pay to send them to private school.

Beth Mattingly, director of Research in Vulnerable Families at the Carsey School of Public Policy, said if people saw the economic impact of early childhood education - which could provide on-ramps for disadvantaged kids to be successful and therefore lessen spending on things like welfare and jails - they would be more willing to invest in such programs.

“There’s all kinds of ideological reasons you can use, but for a lot of the things we’re talking about, it comes down to hard economics,” Mattingly said. “So many of these investments now pay off dividends later. You’re not paying for early childhood education, you’re not paying for afterschool programming, you’re paying for it in healthcare, in criminal justice, in lost income and taxes that these people could have contributed. There’s that argument when ‘this is the right thing to do’ doesn’t work.”

The problem from an economic development standpoint, according to SWIF President and CEO Diana Anderson, is the lack of opportunity means less skilled workers, limiting the growth potential of southwest Minnesota.

“We have an incredible workforce shortage, and it’s not because we don’t have enough people in southwest Minnesota, it’s that we don’t have enough people able to get into the workforce and stay in the workforce,” Anderson said. “So this is economic development in a different way, from cradle to career, so that when young people get jobs in our region, they’re in a position to be successful. We want to level the playing field along that continuum so that they’re poised to take the jobs our business leaders so desperately need them to.”

Elected officials, local business, community and school leaders were among those in attendance. The goal is to have local leaders go back to their communities to spread the message and keep the conversation going.

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