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Kids and the American dream denied. A conversation with author Robert Putnam

"Our Kids" author Robert Putnam. Credit: Martha Stewart

Robert Putnam is the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His 2000 book Bowling Alone argued that social structures in the United States have all but collapsed. The success of that work led the London Times to call Putnam “the most influential academic in the world.”

In his new book, Our Kids, released last March, Putnam examines the country’s income and opportunity gap as it relates to American children. The haves-have nots divide we see today, he argues, is the result of a growing class segregation that began 40 years ago. Based on the worlds that children are born into today — worlds of privilege or poverty — Putnam predicts that things will only get worse. That is, unless we make some serious changes.

Our Kids

Putnam’s book tour took him through Seattle recently. Crosscut caught up with him to talk about his new book. 

There’s a lot of discussion about the growing income gap in our country. This is the crux of your new book Our Kids, but you take a wider view of the problem, specifically its effect on kids. Can you talk about that?

The most important thing that I’m focusing on is the inter-generational effect of the growing income gap. It’s been known for a long time that there’s a growing gap, but historically Americans have been less concerned by this than people in other countries. We kind of assume that everyone gets on the ladder at the same point and some people climb higher, like Bill Gates. We say, “well that’s because they’re better climbers.”

But Americans have cared a lot about the assumption embedded in that; namely, that we’re all getting on the ladder at the same point. We are unbelievably unanimous in thinking that is a critical issue. Ninety-five percent of Americans hardly agree about anything these days, but 95 percent say every kid ought to get a fair start in life. Not that they ought to end up the same, but that they ought to get a fair start.

Talk about the income gap seems to focus on what’s happening right now. You say we need to look 30-40 years into the past and 30-40 years into the future to understand what’s happening.

We won’t know for sure what the ultimate fate or achievement of today’s young people will be for another 20-30 years. So to measure class mobility in standard ways, you’re inevitably looking at people who were kids 30 years ago.

My approach is not to wait until kids are 40 to make some estimates, but to look at them while they’re kids to see what resources and challenges kids from different social classes are facing right now. That gives you a pretty good estimate of what’s going to happen to them later. I’m trying to look out the front windshield and it looks to me like we’re heading for a fall.

It’s a lot like global warming: If we wait until we’re 100 percent certain there’s global warming going on, it’s too late to do much about it.

Likewise, if we wait another 30-40 years to confirm what I’m saying is right, we’re going to have millions and millions of kids who are already consigned to a pretty bad life.

In Our Kids, you talk a lot about your hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio, where there was a subtle class divide. But thanks to the collapse of manufacturing and a new market for large, second homes, Port Clinton has become a perfect small-town example of the extremely rich and extremely poor living side-by-side, but in different worlds. Is the problem specific to regions that lost manufacturing jobs?

Port Clinton, as you say, is a rust belt story. But the underlying principle is not at all a rust belt story.

There are a couple pieces that began 30-40 years ago that make up the bigger picture.

One: A growing income gap, which is where we started this conversation, has large effects on families and therefore their kids.

Two: Equally important, but less well known, is the growing segregation of American society into neighborhoods that are affluent and impoverished. In Port Clinton, it’s in your face. When you drive down the road, one side is full of mansions and the other side, double wides.

You can see this everywhere, not just in the rust belt — I don’t need to tell you that there’s a difference between north and south Seattle. This growing segregation by class has many, many consequences for kids growing up. It means that whether you were rich or poor, you’re likely to be in a school with other kids that are like you, even in public schools.

We’re less likely to connect with people in other social classes than we were 30-40 years ago. So rich kids are just less likely to know poor kids than they would have been 30-40 years ago. That means that the image and information that rich kids have about poor kids is worse now.

Number three: The collapse of the working class family and the soaring rates of single parent families.

What triggered those changes, other than the collapse of manufacturing?

The shift can be understood in a historical context. The beginning of the 20th century was a period of great individualism, at which time the social philosophy was “Social Darwinism”. Social Darwinism said the way this society goes is the rich get richer and the poor toe the line. It was a flawed philosophy, but it emphasized everyone looking out for number one.

That period at the turn of the century was very similar to ours: Big income gaps, massive immigration, immense distrust in the political system, political corruption, domination of politics by big money.

But then there was a turning toward a progressive era in which people began to focus more on the things that unite us, and the fact that we’re in this together.

That was partly a philosophical change and partly a policy change — child labor laws, unemployment insurance, lots of things. It was also an organizational change: There were lots of strikes and demonstrations that got the attention of the rich folks.

At that turning point, Americans saw a decrease in individualism and an increase in concern about other people. And you can see that in quantitative measures: people joining groups, political consensus, income inequality was lower. We were becoming more and more of an egalitarian community.

Part of that had to do with the Great Depression and the First World War, but the shift began before that.

Then beginning in the mid 60s and 70s there was another change. Ronald Reagan’s election made that clear. As in the early 1900s, you can see exactly the same turning point in philanthropy, group membership, social trust and political polarization. For the last third of the 20th century and going into the 21st century there’s been this amazing increase in individualism. I’m not opposed to individualism, but it’s swung way away from worrying about other people to worrying about number one.

Where did that come from?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that we’re in the middle of one of the most individualistic and, I would say, self-centered periods ever in American history. The most significant effect of that is a lack of concern for kids. Kids are uniquely vulnerable to their environment. As people become more individualistic, rich kids get on the upside of that, as their parents spend more money and time making sure their kids are okay. But poor kids are paying more and more of a price they would not have paid in a more communally responsible period.

We have this American image of John Wayne conquering the West, but actually it was settled by wagons and people working together. That’s a powerful part of American history. But we’re living in a period where that side of things has been completely submerged.

But I’m optimistic it will change.

Why did you feel compelled to write this book?

I’m trying to hold up a mirror to America to say to rich folks, ‘Do you realize how bad it’s gotten for poor kids in America?’

I’m writing in the genre of books like How the Other Half Lives, written in 1890. That book simply was a vivid description of the squalor in the tenements on the lower Eastside of New York, intended to be read by people in the silk stocking district or the people on the Upper Eastside of New York. That book was basically just saying, ‘Do you folks really know what it’s like down here?’

Similarly in the 1960s, a book by Michael Harrington called The Other America appealed to affluent Americans, saying, ‘Look! It’s really bad over here!’

Now I’m not saying Our Kids will have anything like the same impact those books had, but it’s simply the genre I wanted to write in.

Do you see anything happening now that might suggest we’re swinging back the other way? If not, what would it take?

I’m in the middle of this, so I want to warn you that I’m not completely unbiased. Nevertheless, the thing that’s most interesting as a marker of change is, when I began this project for or five years ago, my team and I had this very explicit goal to contribute to the national discussion in such a way that we would make this opportunity gap the top issue in the 2016 presidential election, not gay marriage or de-regulation or a whole host of other things. Now we’re seeing that it is in fact the most important issue. Every single candidate that has declared so far has said in their opening statement that the biggest issue facing Americans is the opportunity gap.

Jeb Bush said at the Detroit economic club, “The most important issue facing America is the opportunity gap.” When Hilary Clinton explained why she was running for president, she said so all the kids in America could have the same opportunities as her new granddaughter. Even, for goodness sake, Rick Santorum said two weeks ago to an audience, there’s this extreme leftist up at Harvard [referring to Putnam] and you ought to go read his book!

So what’s going on here? I know it’s not me. It’s that the times are changing. This issue is forcing its way on to the top of the agenda. That does not mean everyone will agree. But having this issue rise to the top of the national agenda for the first time in a long time is a very hopeful sign.

So it will take a president elected on the “opportunity gap” platform to make Americans care more about each others’ kids?

That national conversation, which is what we remember from Teddy Roosevelt and others at the beginning of the 20th century, gives oxygen to local reformers in places like Toledo or Galveston, not in Washington D.C. or Cambridge, Massachusetts. The real serious breakthroughs in the early part of the century came from local folks trying to be a part of that conversation.

I was in Seattle last week talking to your Mayor, who is doing some really interesting things. I’ve also spoken to Mayor Marty Walsh in Boston and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. I don’t claim to have the magic bullet here, but that local level interest illustrates how social change happens in America.

I’m not trying to make America Sweden. I am just trying to get it back to basics.

Are minimum wage fights and calls for more progressive taxation real solutions? Patches on a larger problem? Counter-productive?

Minimum wage is the right kind of thing to be talking about. I don’t want to come out in support of it, but it would raise the wages of poor people, which could in turn help families and children. But I actually think your Mayor’s work on early childhood education is a highly promising step. In fact, all the mayors I’ve spoken with have been working on early childhood education.

But surprisingly, one of the places where the most progress has been made is in Oklahoma, one of the reddest of red states. This is what it looks like when America starts to make changes.

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