Every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, a group of fidgety little girls gathers in the library of Atlanta's Drew Elementary School for a tutoring session. Most of the girls live in one of Atlanta's most notorious housing projects - notorious, not for the material poverty of its residents, but rather, for their poverty of the spirit, as evidenced by the number of shootings, stabbings, 30-year-old grandmothers and street-corner drug deals which characterize the place. These tutoring sessions are an attempt to light a candle in the darkness that surrounds East Lake Meadows.
Volunteers (mostly college students) and paid tutors follow a program designed to bring the girls - elementary and middle-school students - closer to average math and reading skills. The aims are modest, actually: A child in the fifth grade who is currently reading at the third-grade level may raise her skills to read at the fourth-grade level by the end of the year of these twice-weekly sessions.
This program is just one of thousands that go on around the country every day. In elementary school libraries and in church basements, in recreational centers and in high school gymnasiums, everyday heroes and "she-roes" - men and women try to help youngsters labeled as "at-risk" - strive to break the cycle of poverty into which so many of these youngsters are born. But, as noble as these efforts are, there is an unsettling air of futility about them: Is it possible for these volunteer efforts to close the gap between a child born to a 15-year-old high school dropout and child born to a 35-year-old college professor?
While racism remains an oppressive force in American life, observing children of the black upper-middle-class and children of the black underclass gives lie to the notion that color is the most striking determinant of success in America. It is no longer color that matters most, but class. And class, as it turns out, matters even more that it used to.
As good-paying assembly line jobs are lost to robots, and factories move from Michigan to Malaysia, the gap between America's haves and have-nots is growing.
Over the last 20 years, the incomes of the poor and working classes stagnated; the incomes of the top tier - the top 20 percent of American households - have shot upwards. While solid values - discipline, deferred gratification and respect for the work ethic - help and child (or adult), they don't ensure a boost in good family incomes.
I have seen the children of doctors and corporate attorneys, black, brown and white. They articulate as toddlers, confident as kindergartners and sophisticated world-travelers as high school seniors. They are destined for success.
And I have seen the children of the underclass, white, black and brown. They are inarticulate and unlettered. In a world where high-powered executives jet from China to Mexico, they have never even been to Macon, Ga. Even those who study hard are limited by their circumstances: If you have never heard of Harvard, it's hard to get there.
I salute the efforts of those volunteers who toil valiantly to make a difference in the lives of these children unfortunate enough to be born to the underclass, but their efforts cannot turn back a technological revolution which bestows its rewards disproportionately on those who are well-educated. It is too big a job.
Even Bill Clinton no longer dares say it, but it's true: Only government can provide enough support to shore up the lives of the children born at the bottom.