The causes of the growing division between the "haves" and "have-nots" are hard to pinpoint. Is it wealth? Connections? Influence? After years of research, we believe the reason this division is growing may rest on one enviable commodity: information capital.
Information capital - the power to think and use information creatively - evolves as the product of a person's experiences with words and concepts. Having information capital makes you not only a knowledge consumer but a knowledge creator.
Not all children, however, have the same chance of developing information capital. It depends greatly on where you are born. As part of a grant from the William Penn Foundation, we have spent more than 10 years in two divergent Philadelphia neighborhoods, one a low-income neighborhood and one in a middle-class community, watching how information capital grows.
From the start, children in poverty are at a disadvantage, we found. Print materials, a key ingredient in helping children develop reading skills, are hard to find in a low-income neighborhood. There are fewer street and business signs to read. There are fewer books, magazines, or newspapers to buy, and fewer school libraries. In the middle-class neighborhood, there were 13 titles available for each child who lived there; in the low-income area, only one title for every 20 children. As a result, children in poverty see fewer people reading and have fewer resources to read themselves.
The problem continues with extreme differences in parental attitudes toward learning. Devoid of resources and educational experiences themselves, parents in poverty are less capable of helping their children become proficient readers. In an average hour at the library, children in middle-class areas spend about 47 minutes reading with an adult. Children in the low-income neighborhood have less than a minute of an adult's assistance.
This divide is growing even larger in today's digital age. Children from affluent neighborhoods have more access to computers and the Internet in their homes. They become more familiar with technology, gain more information, and become specialists in certain knowledge areas. Low-income children, who are less likely to have home computers, struggle to access technology. They seek it in afterschool programs, community centers, and the library, but these organizations can only offer about two computers for every 100 children. Further, the low-income kids tend to use technology for entertainment and less information-intensive purposes, limiting knowledge gains.
The have-nots certainly gain knowledge, but the haves gain it much faster. As the information flow increases, it will be harder and harder for those who lack reading fluency to keep up.
These gaps will continue to grow unless we address the information environment. Children from low-income areas need greater access to books, computers, and the Internet, as well as help from capable adult mentors. The nation's public libraries, particularly those in low-income areas, need our support.
Finally, schools must help the neediest children develop information capital. For too long, the focus in education has been on how to teach, rather than on what.
Consider, for example, the many schools of excellence for low-income students, such as the Urban Academy or the KIPP Academies. They share a deeply rooted belief that academic achievement must be based on content knowledge. No matter how hard teachers may work on teaching higher-level reasoning or critical-thinking skills, nothing will stick if students lack the background knowledge to build a larger storehouse of information.
With public school education in a constant financial crisis, it would behoove the private sector to address the disparities when it comes to literacy and technology. If corporations want skilled workers, they will have to help create a workforce with a deep knowledge base.
Economic class matters in our country, but if we want to equalize such sharp inequalities, we need to look further: Environment matters. Reading matters. Knowledge matters. We should continue to focus on the growing gap between the "haves" and "have-nots," and see if we "have" what we need to fix it.