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When Robert Putnam was a teenager, somebody put up the money for him to play football on the high school team. And somebody put up the money for his spikes and helmet. Somebody also put up the money for years of music lessons and for an instrument so he could play in band. That somebody was the community of Port Clinton, Ohio, where Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy, grew up in the 1950s. That small community on the shore of Lake Erie about halfway between Toledo and Cleveland, came together to do all that because it believed that it was right to support young Robert Putnam, just as it was right to give to every other kid in town the same opportunity to succeed. There was plenty wrong with a place like Port Clinton in the 1950s, including racism and chauvinism, Putnam readily concedes, but to a surprising degree, all the members of his high school graduating class were, in the eyes of that community, “our kids.”
Today, in Port Clinton, a lot of kids can’t play football or band because they can’t afford the hundreds of dollars needed to pay for the equipment. The lives of the bottom third, often simply characterized by personal and societal neglect, are unimaginable, in fact unknown, to those succeeding in today’s America.
“Over the course of the last four decades, our sense of ‘we’ has shriveled,” Putnam says. “Now when people talk about “our kids” they talk about their own biological kids, they don’t think about all kids. This leads to a situation that’s bad for the economy and bad for democracy. But it’s also just not right. We have an obligation to care for other people’s kids too, not just our own.”
In Our Kids, Putnam’s latest book, the political scientist documents an America where the lives of children from college educated families are starting to be appreciably different from the lives of high school educated families by almost every conceivable measure; an America where the frightening outlines of a caste system are starting to appear.
But the book is not just a lament of America’s current state, it is a reminder of the value of equality and opportunity undergirding the country and a call to action based both on moral and economic grounds. The book has also become a springboard for detailed policy prescriptions by some of the country’s top policy experts, as well as the beginning of what Putnam hopes will be a national conversation, central to the coming presidential contest in 2016 as well as to policy experimentation in state and local government.
America today is more racially and religiously integrated than ever, but it is starting to splinter along class lines. The wealthy have become wealthier and the poorest haven’t had a real pay hike in decades. Public schools are more segregated economically than they used to be. Americans are more likely to marry people of the same social class and to have less exposure to people who are not economically like them. “We don’t understand, most of us, how rapidly these two Americas have come apart,” Putnam says. “Not because we’re evil, but because we’re less exposed.”
Putnam’s body of work, which includes the seminal analysis of social capital Bowling Alone and of the country’s religious life in American Grace has long led the way in explaining America’s changing social fabric. He turned his attention to matters of class and opportunity following an exchange with a student in one of his Harvard University undergraduate seminars. That student, from a blue-collar town, didn’t buy data that said younger Americans were becoming more civically engaged and interested in public service. It might be true here at Harvard, she argued, but not where she grew up. Putnam challenged her to prove her point and, to his surprise, she did. And what’s more, she found, engagement wasn’t the only difference. Regardless of race, the data seemed to be saying, for young Americans, education and wealth were becoming destiny.
And so Putnam went looking to see what had happened to the egalitarian country of his childhood. Working with a team of researchers and ethnographers he started by looking at his hometown, talking to high school classmates: to the women who had interrupted their college careers to get married, to the black students who lived with racism but found champions who helped them make it to college and beyond, to the rich kid who’s family imbued in him the values of never flaunting the family’s wealth, and the blue collar kid who was encouraged by his minister to go to college and eventually became a minister himself. He found a cohort of men and women who, growing up during the high water mark of American equality, seemed to find opportunity at every turn, and community allowing them all to succeed.
Then he spoke to younger generations from Port Clinton. And then, beyond his Ohio hometown, he and his team spoke to dozens more in places like Oregon, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, California, and Pennsylvania, examining the “concentric circles of influence—families, school, and communities—within which today’s youth are growing up.” Putnam now can tell much of the story he learned by simply splaying his index and middle fingers into a simple scissors shape. Beyond the well-documented growing inequality of wealth, Putnam found something more pernicious. By almost any measure—church attendance, children living in single-parent families, adolescent obesity, college completion—graphs show with depressing consistency the uneven trajectories of Americans depending on the level of their household education—highly educated up; less educated down.
But Putnam makes clear that this is not a story of charts and graphs, of surveys and census statistics. The book remembers that those points plotted against an axis represent the startling dichotomies of people living in the same towns but worlds apart.
Take the story of two young people from Port Clinton. David and Chelsea (the names in the books have been changed to protect the identities of the interview subjects) are two young people from Port Clinton. David’s father was in prison when the researchers began talking to him for the book. His mother, who had moved out when he was little, was “never there” when he was growing up, replaced instead by a series of chaotic relationships. He has nine half-siblings; He attended seven different elementary schools. His father never held a steady job and, in 2012 was in prison for a string of robberies. But David couldn’t visit him because he himself was on parole. During the course of the research, David’s life continued to lose direction. He and his girlfriend had an unplanned pregnancy, and after the baby was born, the mother left David for a man who, like her, was addicted to drugs. Posting to Facebook in 2014, David wrote: “I always end up on the losing end … I’ll never get ahead.”
Chelsea grew up in a comfortable home overlooking the lake. She and her brother would come home to school to find one of their parents, both educated professionals, at home and would do their homework on the kitchen island while their mother cooked dinner. Chelsea was student body president, yearbook editor, in the National Honor Society, “and a whole bunch of other stuff.” Her mother pushed them and fought for them when she didn’t think teachers recognized their efforts. At a Big Ten university at the time of the research, Chelsea was aiming to attend law school, like her grandfather did.
“Comparing Port Clinton kids in the 1950s with Port Clinton kids today, the opportunity gap has widened dramatically, partly because affluent kids now enjoy more advantages than less affluent kids then,” Putnam writes, “but mostly because poor kids now are in much worse shape than their counterparts then.” What Putnam found, in other words, when he went looking for the America of his youth was a country beginning to divide into two, a country developing something approaching a caste system. That split began in the 1970s, when a decades-old trend of equalization, which began following the implementation of the New Deal, began to reverse, “slowly at first but then with accelerating harshness.”
“The causes of this breathtaking increase in inequality during the past three to four decades are much debated—globalization, technological change, and the consequent increase in “returns to education,” de-unionization, superstar compensation, changing social norms, and post-Reagan public policy—though the basic shift toward inequality occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations,” Putnam writes.
But the real danger is not necessarily the inequality of income and wealth, but the inequality of opportunity: the sense that because of the circumstances of their birth, certain Americans are destined to fail. That is a future that Americans should resist both because it is morally wrong, because it will cost America dearly in economic growth and productivity, and because it threatens the country’s democratic legitimacy, Putnam argues.
“The high school movement swept across America in the first decade of the 20th century,” Putnam offers as an example. “At the time it wasn’t obvious. Some rich farmer outside East Elbow, Kansas, is being asked to pay taxes so that other people’s kids in the town can get an education. That required a sense that somehow we’re all in this together.” That movement is estimated by some economists to have given America an economic advantage that helped make it so successful during the following century. Would America be imaginable today without it, he asks?
Putnam believes a similar movement can be created now. The book is intended as an invitation to a national conversation about the country’s opportunity gap. He has already had conversations about this issue with President Barack Obama and some of the leading presidential candidates from both parties, as well as congressional leaders. When viewed through the universally appealing prism of opportunity and fairness, as opposed to the more polarizing lens of wealth inequality and redistribution, the issue cuts to the quick for all Americans.
But Putnam is also intent on offering viable policy options—“purple policies” that can appeal to all political persuasions. He has launched the Closing the Opportunity Gap Initiative, convening a series of working groups of the best experts in America to determine possible approaches or potential solutions on the issues of early childhood education, family policy, community institutions, primary education, as well as what he calls “on ramps” for young adults, such as vocational training and apprenticeships. Each group (the first one met in Cambridge in February) will produce white papers by the summer.
“They’re all designed to answer the following question: If I’m the mayor of Dayton, or the secretary of education in Texas, or the archbishop of San Diego, or I’m a presidential candidate and I want to narrow the opportunity gap, what should I do?” Putnam explains. Each white paper will essentially provide a list of options, some tried and true, like high-quality early childhood education and reading programs.
“But in the end, when this problem is fixed, it won’t be because we’ve passed a big national law,” Putnam says. “It will happen in places all across the country at the grass roots. The real creativity in periods of social reform in America did not come out of Washington; it came out of places like Galveston and Toledo. This is what’s happening now. Some of the best experiments in childhood education now are happening in Oklahoma, the reddest of deep red conservative America.”
In the end, he returns to Port Clinton and the image of a town coming together to help its children—all its children. “You need to think about investing in these kids, because they’re our kids,” Putnam insists. “What we’ve lost as a society as a whole is the idea that we should invest in all kids.”
Photo by Martha Stewart
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