Open Book

America’s Opportunity Chasm

A Noted Scholar Documents Our Decline in Social Mobility

Magazine Issue
July/August 2015
Robert Putnam

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
By Robert D. Putnam
Simon & Schuster. 386 pages.
ISBN: 9781476769899

In his discomforting new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the noted Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of the classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, documents the myriad psychological, educational, health, and political consequences of the ever-growing disparities between rich and poor in America today. His message is clear: depending on your socioeconomic status, your children will pay the cost—or reap the benefits.

Studies increasingly show, he writes, that “healthy brain development in American children turns out to be closely correlated with parental education, income, and social class.” The children of poverty are at higher risk for elevated levels of cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”), impaired emotional regulation, and a potentially decreased ability to concentrate. Affluent children are estimated to be exposed to 19 million more words by kindergarten than working-class or welfare families. And that’s just the beginning of the negative cascade of effects that poverty sets off in children’s lives. It’s also the opposite of the positive cycle set in motion by stable family structures, intensive parenting styles, and a host of other resources, both financial and social.

Putnam has distilled a massive amount of research into a devastating indictment of the lack of opportunity for the poor available in our presumed land of opportunity. His deft combination of individual interviews, family case studies, and stark statistical charts amounts to a powerful moral call for action. The more I read, the more I was reminded of Michael Harrington’s 1962 exposé of poverty, The Other America, a volume widely credited with generating broad support for initiating and expanding numerous federal aid programs to assist the poor. Those are in many cases the same programs that legislators, in more recent years, have systematically defunded, ranking budget cuts over human costs. And that brings us to Putnam’s portrait of the haves and have-nots in the America of 2015.

Putnam begins by contrasting the post-World War II boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, when he grew up, with America in the aftermath of the Great Recession. He describes his hometown during that time, Port Clinton, Ohio, as “a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background.” Although far from a perfect era in its racism and gender bias, it was a time of relatively low income inequality, which offered access to high-quality public education for all, including city- and state-run colleges and universities that charged little or no tuition for local students (as opposed to today’s ever-rising college costs and ever-growing student-debt burden). At the same time, because neighborhoods encompassed a broader mix of rich and poor than the gated suburban communities and inner cities of today, students from different social and economic classes generally went to the same schools and played in sports leagues together. People were also more civically engaged in community activities, sports, or faith-based organizations, which led to more mixing across social and class lines.

The result of all this intermingling was the availability of large amounts of what Putnam calls “social capital” to members of all socioeconomic classes. This type of capital is a measure of the social webs, interpersonal networks, and other types of connections that link one person to another. The more social capital you have, the denser the web of social relationships you possess, allowing you to reach out and call on someone for help. In contrast, the lower amount of social capital and fewer contacts you have, the more constricted your reach will be, both within and outside your immediate circle. For Putnam, social capital is a crucial measure of the sturdiness of the fabric of society. The denser the knit, the stronger the mutual safety net the community will be able to create to ensure everyone’s wellbeing.

But as the level of social capital declines, the more frayed and torn that fabric becomes, reflecting a community falling ever deeper into disrepair and dysfunction.

In the Port Clinton of Putnam’s formative years, the fact that people from varying backgrounds and income levels knew and cared about one another encouraged a communal feeling that all the kids were “our kids,” to be protected, watched over, and in times of need, given a neighborly boost. But today, Putnam writes, “life in Port Clinton, Ohio, is a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks.” Forget about communal networks or social capital connecting rich and poor. Gaping inequalities in wealth and income are reflected in different schools, neighborhoods, and expectations. The lack of intersection among different social classes further means that rich and poor lack firsthand knowledge of each other’s experience, leading to what Putnam calls a perception gap (and an accompanying empathy gap) that can blind the affluent to just how large the opportunity gap is. In other words, how can you care about someone who’s invisible to you?

This is the darkest side yet that Putnam has portrayed in his continuing examination of the deterioration of communal engagement and its effects on our wellbeing, both as individuals and as a society. In Bowling Alone, Putnam traced the decline of the communal connections and civic commitment that once defined American life. His American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, focused on the interplay of religion, politics, and social engagement, with emphasis on the societal fallout of the growing numbers of people who are estranged from religion and the communal ties that accompany it.

While Putnam believes that the overall weakening of the communal social glue is central to our current state of inequality, he also identifies other causes, such as the erosion of middle- and working-class industrial jobs, the expansion of global trade and international outsourcing, accelerated technological change, deunionization, the increased need for a college degree to attain even entry-level jobs, and the continuing cuts to health, education, and welfare programs advocated by proponents of small government. The cumulative impact has been devastating for those on the lower end of the economic ladder. “Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession,” Putnam writes, “the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1981 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent.”

The upshot is that, although we like to think otherwise, the playing field of opportunity today hasn’t just become uneven, it’s getting worse as time goes on. That’s because, in the same way that the stacking of one economic or educational advantage upon another amplifies the possibilities for successful lives for affluent kids, each economic, family, or educational disadvantage experienced by poor children increasingly narrows an already limited range of possibility for their future. Emblematic of this chasm-sized opportunity gap is the explanation one father at the poverty line gave for bringing his two young kids along for his interview with Putnam’s research assistant: just to have them meet and interact with someone who’d graduated from college.

Putnam emphasizes that because “education, and especially higher education, has become increasingly important for good jobs and higher incomes,” education and economic levels increasingly correlate one to the other. As a result, the opportunity gap Putnam identifies has less to do with race than with educational level attained, which in turn is associated with socioeconomic status. In other words, the class gap “has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing.” Indeed, Putnam’s profiles of people throughout the book reveal greater similarities according to their socioeconomic and educational levels than to race. Differences in class—not race—also play out in the spheres of family stability and parenting style, as well as in the availability of social (and often financial) capital that would allow access to additional educational, psychological, or other kinds of resources and support networks when necessary.

This is strikingly illustrated in the contrasting stories of two single-mother families, both white: one in a comfortable Philadelphia suburb and the other in one of the city’s once working-class but now blighted neighborhoods. In both cases, separation and divorce splintered the family, with the fathers disappearing from their children’s lives. Both mothers confronted financial stress with only one income to rely on. Their adolescent kids all experimented with drugs, engaged in sex at an early age, and had troubles in school. But Marnie, the suburban mom, had the social and financial capital to propel her family toward success, tapping professional networks to build a successful consulting business and then social networks to find private schools, tutoring, and psychotherapists to wean one daughter off drugs, treat the other for ADHD, and guide them both through eating disorders. She could afford to employ household help to be at home with her children when she couldn’t. Additionally, her neighborhood provided safe streets, with a nearby church that offered a cohesive community of friends and mentors. Marnie was even able to pull strings to help her daughters’ father find work, move close by, and reconnect with them. Both daughters are now in college and positioned for productive lives ahead.

By contrast, Molly, the city-dweller, couldn’t afford to move out of her rundown neighborhood, where gunshots could be heard regularly and her neighbor was a drug dealer who sold to her husband, and later her daughters. One of those daughters became pregnant in 12th grade. In addition, Molly’s youngest child was diagnosed with autism, and Molly herself, suffering from multiple sclerosis, fell into a severe depression when she started having to use a wheelchair. Minimal aid from governmental agencies provided some relief, but the family was destitute and in crisis. The saving grace for them was the local church, whose pastor stepped in to help find an accessible apartment. The daughter’s pregnancy gave her an unexpected educational opportunity by allowing her to transfer to a school where guidance counselors encouraged her to apply to a college with a special program for unmarried mothers. Though money remains a major worry, these communal and school resources have provided the family with a lifeline to the future, however precarious.

Unfortunately, as other profiles in the book show (such as the story of a homeless adolescent boy struggling to be a fatherlike figure to nine half-siblings, the collective products of his parents’ pairings with other partners), too many families lack even these resources, which are drying up due to lack of public as well as private funding.

Are there ways to correct the situation? Putnam’s suggested fixes aren’t new. He advocates the expansion of existing tax programs to help the poor and other antipoverty programs like food stamps, housing vouchers, and childcare support. He proposes strengthening family structure by increasing the availability of contraception to cut down on unwanted teen pregnancies, and argues for reducing today’s exorbitant incarceration rates, which too often remove fathers from their children’s lives. He recommends flexible workplace options and parental leave to provide more time for families to spend together, along with funding for preschool centers and programs to coach parents. He’d like to see the return of vocational education as a way to provide practical job training. He’d also eliminate policies that require students to pay fees to participate in school extracurricular activities.

But in our politically bifurcated country, there seems to be insufficient support for the implementation of these kinds of programs. Nevertheless, in laying a scholarly foundation for raising our national awareness of the growing problem of social inequality, Putnam’s provided an invaluable public service.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.