Opportunity gap

Robert Putnam says a growing divide in everything from stable home lives to access to extracurricular activities is cutting poor children off from the American dream.

Photographs by Frank Curran

THE NEW YORK TIMES recently called Robert Putnam the “poet laureate of civil society.” One of a handful of academics known for bringing social science out of the ivory tower, the longtime Harvard political science professor puts research findings on big trends in American life into layman’s language, telling stories that shed light on our times in ways that have resonated widely.

He did this most notably with Bowling Alone, his 2000 book that chronicled the decline in civic engagement that Putnam said marked a fraying of the social fabric that once gave communities cohesion. Putnam’s latest research has taken on perhaps the defining domestic issue of our time: inequality. But the focus of his newest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is not growing disparities in income. His concern is the yawning gap in the opportunities American children have based on their parents’ background.


Putnam says an enormous gulf has emerged between poor children and better-off children on all sorts of measures — from the chances of growing up in two-parent households to access to mentors and extracurricular activities.

The cumulative toll of all these differences, he says, is putting American kids on widely different trajectories, which are likely to translate to big differences in income and economic security throughout adulthood. Putnam says there will always be inequality of outcomes in society. But he says inequality of opportunity has grown substantially over the last several decades, threatening a bedrock principle of the American Dream — that there is opportunity for all regardless of social class.

Our Kids takes readers to communities across the country, including Port Clinton, Ohio, the small town on Lake Erie where Putnam grew up. It’s a place he scarcely recognizes today, with an enormous class divide marking the kinds of lives young people experience. He says that divide did not define kids’ paths in the Port Clinton of the 1950s.

He interweaves the tales of young people and their families (who are all given pseudonyms) — we meet Mary Sue, Stephanie and her kids, and many others — with data and graphs that document the large-scale trends that their stories illustrate.

Putnam has an ambitious goal when it comes to addressing the growing opportunity gap facing American children: He wants to make it “the most important domestic issue in the presidential election of 2016.” Putnam has had the ear of the last four US presidents, who have each turned to him to discuss problems facing the country.

Putnam insists that the problems demand “purple” solutions that mix elements of liberal and conservative thought, and he is out to make the opportunity crisis a bipartisan cause. It’s a noble enough effort, but it also is where he has run into the most criticism. In his bid to get everyone under “the tent,” as he puts it, Putnam steers clear of the causes of income inequality, saying his concern is its consequences for kids. That has drawn criticism from the left. Meanwhile, some on the right have said he gives short shrift to the role values have played in eroding the family in working class and poor communities.

Plenty of conservatives have been cheered by the attention he does give to the value of two-parent households and stable families. But Putnam concedes that public policy has had limited reach in those areas. His list of policy prescriptions to tackle the opportunity gap includes universal preschool; more robust vocational ed programs; greater funding of schools educating poor children; the elimination of fees for extracurricular activities; and expansion of the earned income tax credit and child tax credit for poorer families. Most of these initiatives require tax money, where buy-in from the right seems unlikely.

The current picture may look grim, but Putnam says the country faced a similar coming apart in the Gilded Age of a century ago. The reforms of the Progressive Era then followed.

Putnam is a high-energy evangelist. There is a rapid-fire cadence to his sermonizing when he gets going. The 74-year-old professor is on his first cup of coffee when we sit down to talk on an August morning at his getaway home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where Putnam did much of the work on his book. Putnam says he’ll often go through as many as eight cups of espresso in a day when he’s writing. Over the course of an hour and a quarter, Putnam’s voice frequently rises in indignation over the forces working against poor kids, and his fist meets the table more than once as he makes a point. “If I’d been interviewed while I was awake I would have been more animated,” he says with a smile when we’re done.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.


COMMONWEALTH: The subtitle of your book is “The American Dream in crisis.”  What do you mean by that?

ROBERT PUTNAM: I wanted to frame this issue in terms of equality of opportunity, that is, how well you do in life should depend on your hard work and your skills, not on what your parents did or didn’t do. Americans have never been, as a country, very big on absolute equality of outcome, but we’ve always been very big, since the very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, on the idea that everybody gets an equal start — all men are created equal. It’s such a core part of our national belief that when people have called attention to discrepancies between that core principle and the realities, that’s had a great deal of moral and rhetorical power. And when it comes to opportunity for kids today, the gap has just gotten way out of hand, and it’s growing so fast that if we don’t do something it’s going to get worse.

CW: You’re saying that the basic idea of everyone having an equal shot in life is in crisis now in a way that it wasn’t 40 or 50 years ago?

PUTNAM: Exactly. The standard way in which social scientists have measured this idea of inequality is to correlate a child’s income at age 40, say, with their parents income when their parents were age 40. If they’re strongly correlated, that means rich kids have an advantage that poor kids don’t, and if they’re completely uncorrelated, that’s equality of opportunity. That means the changes that I am describing in this book have not yet shown up in the conventional ways of measuring social mobility, and won’t until 2035 or something like that. The approach I’ve taken here is to try to get a peek at what’s going to be happening by looking at the trends affecting these kids when they’re kids.

CW: Your book uses a lot of what you call scissor graphs, which show trend-lines on all sorts of measures that are growing farther apart for kids with parents who graduated from college compared to kids whose parents went no further than high school. You simplify things and call these the rich kids and poor kids, and say they are roughly the top third and bottom third of American society. The scissors are opening wider and wider.

PUTNAM: We’re seeing how the twig is being bent at an earlier stage, and the twig for poor kids is being bent down and the twig for rich kids is being bent up. That’s why the graphs are so important.

CW:  You start out talking about families. The data on changes in the patterns of family formation are just overwhelming.

PUTNAM: The core facts are that in the 1950s and even into 1960s, basically, America had one fundamental family structure: mom, dad, and the kids. Dad worked and mom didn’t. Ozzie and Harriet represented that, and it was true of all social classes. The divorce rate was low and the out-of-wedlock birth rate was very low. Then we went to the 60s and 70s and everything was in turbulence. There was the sexual revolution. A whole bunch of things changed. Some people thought marriage was falling apart. It wasn’t. But the family structure was surely in flux. Out of that, in the 80s and 90s and up to now, two really different family structures have emerged. Among college-educated Americans, basically, what we have now is kind of Ozzie and Harriet with an asterisk, because now Harriet’s got a job as a lawyer or a social worker, so the two parents are working, and Ozzie’s helping out more with the dishes than used to be the case. But other than that, it looks the same: 90-plus percent of kids growing up in college-educated homes have two parents there. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the economic spectrum, roughly two-thirds of all kids born in America to high school-educated parents are living in a single-parent family. That’s really a big deal. That’s probably the widest of all these scissors.

CW: You layer on top of that a remarkable piece of data on race: For blacks born in that lower third, half will also have had a parent who was in prison.

PUTNAM: The collapse of the family, I think, is mostly about social class. The imprisonment epidemic is mostly about race. So poor black kids are getting the worst of both worlds.

CW: Is the breakdown of the family causing this fall into poverty or is it a consequence of it?

PUTNAM: It’s both. In general, hard times and high levels of unemployment discourage family formation. So that’s the arrow that runs from the economics to family formation. We saw that in the Great Depression in the 1930s. The Great Depression massively lowered the marriage rate in America. It also lowered the birth rate and therefore did not affect the rate of kids living in single-parent homes. People were not getting married, but they also weren’t having kids. The difference now is very hard economic times have disrupted family formation but they haven’t disrupted having kids. And the evidence is pretty clear that it’s easier to raise kids when there are two parents.

CW: In your discussion of parenting, there’s a section that profiles three black families of different social classes in Atlanta. The college-educated couple is almost out of central casting. The mother puts together workbooks during the summer for the kids to keep up with academics. They do flashcards when they’re on car trips.

PUTNAM: And when they’re going off to Amsterdam they read Anne Frank.

CW: Right. And they have family dinners together, another thing that you show is more common among better-off families. Then there is a family headed by a single mom, Stephanie, who is working hard to raise her kids. But she’s doing that with a very tough love that contrasts sharply with the parenting style of the college-educated couple. She says at one point, “I’m not kissing and hugging my kids” and being “mushy” with them. She’s saying you’ve really got to steel yourself and your kids against the world out there.

PUTNAM: Right.

CW: But your argument, in a way, based on the way college-educated parents rear their kids and what that does for them, is that being “mushy” would actually put her kids on a stronger path.

ComPutnam-033PUTNAM: Yes and no. I think the story is a little more complicated than that. If I were Stephanie, given her portfolio, given the neighborhood in which she lives, given the realities she’s living around — other kids in the neighborhood being killed — my first priority would be to try to keep my kids away from that surrounding, pervasive violence. The point of the story, from my point of view, is it’s not like she’s making the wrong decision given her circumstances. She’s working hard to try to get together enough money to move her kids a little bit away from the worst district.
She says, when talking about family dinners, “We ain’t got time, honey, for any of that ‘how’s your day’ stuff.” I know the data show having family dinners helps kids, and so it’s a shame her kids are not getting family dinners. On the other hand, what’s she doing? She’s working extra hours to earn money to try to help her kids move away from the worst of the violence. We can’t try to “teach” Stephanie to leave work early and come home and fix a nice dinner. The economics are just overpowering whatever she might like to do.

CW: One other extension of this is what you call “Goodnight Moon time” versus “diaper time.” Goodnight Moon time is the hours spent not on basic needs for young children, but the stuff beyond that, nurturing and reading to kids. You have data showing diverging lines when it comes to Goodnight Moon time, with better-off kids getting 45 minutes more of this per day than poor kids.

PUTNAM: That’s a case where what we’ve learned in the last 10, 15 years about brain development among kids has really changed a lot our notion of what’s going on when we read to kids. The brain develops through social interaction. The child says, “”goo-goo,” and some nearby adult says, “isn’t that sweet,” a kind of serve-and-response or verbal ping-pong between adults and infants. We now know our brains are biologically programmed to learn from that kind of experience. So we now recognize in a way that we didn’t even 15 years ago that the Goodnight Moon time is actually powerfully influencing the brain.

CW: You also talk a lot about the positive impact on kids of extracurricular activities — and show that the rates of participation have more or less held steady for better-off kids but fallen dramatically for poor kids. You spotlight one factor helping to drive this divergence: the fact that more and more school districts are charging fees — pay-to-play — to take part in these activities. You write that the roots of extracurricular activities in schools have to do with careful thought given decades ago to the benefits they would confer on kids going forward into adulthood. The thinking was they would help kids with so-called soft skills — grit, perseverance, and so on.  It’s fascinating that this was being thought of way back then. Those sorts of skills are ones that are talked about even more today as being crucial to succeed in the knowledge-based economy.

PUTNAM: Absolutely. This is historical amnesia. Most people in America think that God invented high school football. High school football was invented by educational reformers. All these things — football, band, chorus, French club, and so on — the reason we have those in our schools was precisely because of the ideas of education reformers at the beginning of the 20th century. They didn’t have terms like non-cognitive skills or soft skills — they talked about grit and teamwork. But they intuited at the time without much experimental evidence — now we know they were right — that taking part in sports or band or chorus, all of those things teach character. I played trombone in the band in Port Clinton. I was a lousy trombonist, but what I learned was I had to practice every day with that damn trombone in order to be in the band, and so I did. I was learning what my mom called stick-to-it-iveness. I’m trying to make real why the extracurricular activities are, in fact, such an important part of developing these soft skills. People tease me about getting so passionate about extracurricular activities. But the fact of the matter is this is a very clear case in which by privatizing those opportunities, that is, requiring kids now in high schools across America to pay to play in the band or to play football or whatever, we have intentionally kept poor kids from having the same opportunities that rich kids do. That’s evil.

CW: There is a bar graph at the end of the chapter on education that, I think, in some ways is the most stunning single image in the whole book. This has to do with test scores of eighth graders and their likelihood of graduating from college based on those test scores and family background or socioeconomic status. The upshot of it is that the lowest-scoring rich kids actually have a slightly greater likelihood of getting a college degree than the highest-scoring poor kids.

PUTNAM: That is the most damning graph in the whole book. What that means is what your parents do or have acquired is actually more important for how you’re going to do in life than your own skills, your own God-given skills, and the hard work that’s embodied in and whatever else is required to have done well on those eighth grade tests. I’m not so upset about 30 percent of rich dumb kids getting a college education. I’m upset about the fact that only 29 percent of the smartest poor kids get a college education.

CW: You also write about this two-tier world emerging in which the kids in the upper third have so much they can lean on, so many more supports there, both formal and informal kinds of mentoring. You refer to the sociologist Mark Granovetter and his idea of “the strength of weak ties.” Because of the power of those informal networks, even in areas like summer jobs or internships, there is a rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer phenomenon. Kids from very advantaged backgrounds are the ones who have connections to get the summer job working in a lab, where they get a leg up in learning what scientists do.

PUTNAM: It hasn’t always been this way. It used to be that there were lots of social supports for kids in working-class neighborhoods. I don’t want to romanticize it, but there were ties of mutual support. People looked out for one another’s kids. It used to be there were lots of people in the neighborhood looking out for everybody’s kid. The collapse of the sort of sociological safety net in working class neighborhoods across America has meant that it’s much truer than it used to be that the rich get richer. The most important single thing to say about poor kids in America today is, they are on their own.

ComPutnam-017CW: To borrow a phrase, is it fair to say the poor are doing much more bowling alone, while those who are better off, in various different ways, are not?

PUTNAM: Yes, that’s right. Another way of putting the same point is that kids are the most vulnerable part of our society to the plague of bowling alone. That is to say, though kids of all sorts are much more vulnerable to a collapse of the social fabric, parents of rich kids can, in a way, buy their kids out of the absence of community. It’s also true that the community has not collapsed as much in Wellesley and other rich suburbs. And the kids in Wellesley, even if the social fabric does get a little threadbare, their parents can save them from that. Whereas if you’re living in Dorchester or Southie you don’t have that capacity. We didn’t do it on our own, our kids are not doing it on their own, and we can’t expect these poor kids to do it on their own. We’ve got to be part of the solution.

CW: You say that these problems that seem really overwhelming call for purple solutions. What do you mean by that?

PUTNAM: There are parts of this problem that you can understand most clearly through blue, progressive lenses, which are the ones that I habitually use. If you look at Port Clinton, you can see those closing factories, and you can see the fact that Mary Sue’s parents never had a steady job, and then you see how that affected Mary Sue. But there are parts of the larger national problem that you can actually more clearly see through red, conservative lenses. You see the fact that Mary Sue’s parents never got married, that they changed partners every year or two, and you can see how that bears on the kids.

CW: So that part has more to do with choices and values?

PUTNAM: I’d use the term “family values” except that term has been expropriated by a particular political view. But the fact is there are responsibilities of families here, and conservatives have historically been more attentive to that. And there are, for sure, economic, structural causes, and progressives have been much more attentive to those. I’m not trying to exactly describe what’s the mixture of red and blue, but it’s clearly a purple problem and it needs purple solutions. That is, we need to think both about how to help the families but also how to change the economic structure.

CW: You say that the evidence so far is that there’s no way to impose a fix on the huge changes that have occurred in family formation and marriage decisions.

PUTNAM: George W. Bush, who believed that this was an important part of the issue, spent a lot of time trying to have marriage promotion programs and [spent] a lot of money. To his credit, he also carefully evaluated those programs and we know that, I’m simplifying, they didn’t work.

CW: Getting rid of the pay-to-play policies is probably the most tangible solution you lay out. You tell people to get up, walk down to your town hall, pound your fist, and insist that it’s one thing we can change today. Given the magnitude of these huge problems of growing inequality of opportunity, that feels a little underwhelming.

PUTNAM: Look, there are big things that need to be done that would be really hard. Getting national early childhood education — Obama’s tried that and it’s not going to happen easily. The most important thing we could do would be to end this long wage stagnation for the working class. But nobody knows quite how to do that. Any of these big, big powerful things are going to be a heavy lift. If you put down this book, you, yourself, are not going to be able to change the wage level of the working class in America, or even ensure that every kid in America has an early childhood education. You could put down this book and go to your local school board and get them to abolish pay-to-play. Is that going to change all of America? Of course not. But I didn’t want people to put down this book and say, well, that’s a big problem, somebody else ought to solve that one for us. I want to say, come on, you, too, can do things.

CW:  You said that conservatives have been pleasantly surprised by some things in the book. Or maybe you’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of conservatives. But some on the left have been critical. A few reviews have latched on to a line in the book where you say there are no upper class villains here. Nobody thinks that the family giving their kid the best summer camp and music and extracurriculars is the villain, but they would say the economic underpinnings that have played such a role in this falling apart of the family are not God-given or acts of nature. We’ve had tax policies, trade policies, they would argue, that accelerated the coming apart of the working class economy in Port Clinton and elsewhere. Yet those aren’t really addressed in your book.

PUTNAM: There are a lot of really good polemic books on the causes of the income gap in America. I didn’t think I could add to that literature. I wanted to focus on the effects on kids. I wanted to ask, what are the consequences of that growing income inequality for kids? A few years ago, a quite smart political analyst in America told me, Bob, in politics you have to have an enemy. If you don’t have an enemy, you’re not going to succeed. That guy was Ralph Reed, a notable right-wing religious conservative, and skilled practitioner of the politics of polarization. And some people on the left — it’s only two of the reviews, but two of the high-profile reviews — have focused on that, one in the New Yorker and one in the New York Times. They want me to preach to the choir. They have the same view that Ralph Reed has, which is, without enemies you don’t make progress. I’m not just trying to preach to the choir. Unless we get more people in the tent, we’re not going to make progress on the kids. What can we do as soon as possible to stop losing generation after generation of poor kids in America? Would it have increased the likelihood that the country would actually do something about it if I had complained about the Koch brothers or about Ronald Reagan or whoever else is responsible?

CW: If you go from Bowling Alone 15 years ago to Our Kids today, with its subtitle about the American Dream in crisis, some people might say, Bob Putnam tells a pretty depressing story of American life. But you say you’re more sanguine than pessimistic.

PUTNAM: Well, sanguine isn’t quite the word. I think I’m hopeful and optimistic because of American history. I think if you look at American history it’s not one long down trend. This is not the first time this happened in American history. We had very much the same set of problems at the beginning of the 20th century, the end of the 19th century. That was the last Gilded Age in America. It was a period of great political corruption and great political stagnation and great political angst and alienation. The public philosophy at the time was social Darwinism, which was this pseudoscientific idea that America would be better off if we all were selfish and let the devil take the hindmost.

CW: At the very ground level, things like making kids pay to participate in extracurricular activities looks like a return to some of that thinking.

PUTNAM: Exactly. So there are deep parallels. This is the point of that comparison: In a historically short period of time, in about 10 or 15 years, people on the upside, or at least some people on the upside, gradually recognized the problem. Now some of the rich folks at that point [in the Gilded Age] said, yeah, that’s fine, it’s their problem, let them worry about it. But other people said, no, no, we’ve got to do more. We’ve got to pay higher taxes, so that those living in tenements can have clean water and sewage systems. That was the beginning of the recognition of the problem. But of all the things that happened in that Progressive Era, the most interesting one was the invention of high schools. It was the first time in world history that any community had said all the kids in town are going to get a free publicly provided secondary education. In no place else in the world did we have that. And it came from small towns in the Midwest, in Kansas and Nebraska and so on. And the reformers who wanted to create free secondary high schools in those towns had to say to the local rich banker and local rich lawyer, your kids have already had a secondary education. You paid for them to go off someplace to get a private school education. And they’re now off making lots of money in Chicago. But you should also pay higher taxes so that other people’s kids here in town can get a free secondary education. It was a hard pitch. It’s sort of the pitch that I’m making now to Americans.

CW: That’s the “our kids” message of the book title.

PUTNAM: Absolutely. But here’s the point: It turned out to be the best public policy decision America has ever made. That single decision was responsible for most of the economic growth in America in the 20th century. It increased the productivity of the American labor force for most of the 20th century. So it helped everybody, including the bankers and lawyers in town. But it also leveled the playing field. Now what is exactly the 21st century equivalent of high school?  There’s debate about that. I think that universal early childhood education has that same potential. That’s what the evidence, I think, overwhelmingly shows. But there are a lot of things. I go back to the point that this is a purple problem. There’s not just one solution, and it won’t happen overnight. I’m not saying look to what the Danes do. I’m saying, look to our history. This is as American as apple pie — to worry about other people’s kids.