Washington-and indeed the country-is engaged in a great conversation about the government’s role in our health care system. That’s an important debate: changing government’s role in health care will affect the lives of just about all Americans.

Yet, while most of our public debates focuses on public policy, government’s role in determining our life’s outcome is relatively small. It’s the decisions that we make as individuals that set our life’s course. It’s families and communities that have the responsibility to give children the tools they need so that they can make the right choices and build a positive future.

That’s the message of Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, written by Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint. While acknowledge the real challenges that plague many Americans, particularly those living in poverty, Cosby and Poussaint urge people to recognize the opportunities that they have and to make the most of them. Their message focuses particularly on the African-American community, but it’s a message that applies to all society.

People are urged to get themselves an education: it is never too late to learn to read and pursue a degree, and there are institutions such as community colleges that exist to support adults in their educational pursuits. Cosby and Poussaint, who is a medical doctor, encourage people to take better care of themselves: the physical problems that plague many, some of them preventable by healthy living, contribute to mental problems, such as depression, that make it all the more difficult to take steps-such as getting an education or a job-that will build a better life. They highlight the importance of gaining job experience, careful stewardship of finances, and ridding your life of violence and drugs.

Most of all, though, this book focuses on what we need to do for our children, because it’s the next generation that have been failed the most. Cosby and Poussaint write: “In all corners of America, too many children are getting the short end of the stick as extend family networks collapse and community support programs fail to replace them in any significant way. It doesn’t have to be like this.” They provide basic tips about protecting the well-being of a child, starting with the urgent need to get the expected mother to the doctor for prenatal care, to positive discipline strategies, to limiting young children’s exposure to television, to speaking proper English, to setting an example for your child. Their encouragement isn’t just to parents, but to everyone who has the opportunity to touch a child’s life to recognize the important role that we can all play in helping that child thrive.

This book lays out many disturbing statistics and examples of how our society has broken down in fundamental ways, but also provides stories of inspiration. It is peppered with examples of those who have made positive changes in their lives who offer advice and encouragement to others.

While the emphasis of this book is on what individuals can do to create better futures, and healthy families and communities, government isn’t let off the hook. There are things that government can do to create an environment that will assist in improving our culture and society. And government is failing in important, fundamental ways. Perhaps most importantly, our education system should be a ladder that gives every child the opportunity to climb out of poverty and reach their highest aspirations. And sadly, this is simple not the case in most urban public schools in America. Our graduation rates are abysmal, our schools are plagued with violence, and test scores show that too many students aren’t acquiring even the most basic skills, let alone the skills they will need to compete in the modern, knowledge economy.

Fundamental education reform that empowers parents to choose schools that are best suited for their children and to hold schools accountable for results is a key element of improving our society. There is no legitimate reason why this shouldn’t happen. As Cosby and Poussaint would write “come on people,” whether its changing our own lives or working to advance important changes like fundamental, student-centered education reform, the time for action is now.