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The Commons
Voices / Editorial

How well did you choose your parents?

Putnam: Inequality of opportunity grows as wealth gap widens

Originally published in The Commons issue #153 (Wednesday, May 23, 2012).

Robert Putnam has written extensively about decline of social capital — the social relationships and civic engagement that are key elements of a vibrant democracy. His 1996 best-selling title Bowling Alone was a seminal book in the field.

But Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is turning his research toward the growing inequality-of-opportunity gap in the United States.

He says there is “a catastrophic gap” when it comes to social mobility, and it is getting worse with each passing year.

With fewer and fewer opportunities for lower-income Americans to move up the economic ladder, the United States is faced with what Putnam calls “one of the most urgent moral issues.”

Conventional wisdom would hold that the issue of income inequality in the United States is receiving more attention with the rise of the Occupy movement, but Putnam believes that most Americans are unconcerned about it.

“Americans don’t have the vocabulary to talk about class,” said Putnam. “Historically, most Americans don’t care about inequality of wealth and income. But Americans are quite concerned about social mobility and equality of opportunity.”

* * *

Putnam presented some of his preliminary research on the subject during a recent alumni weekend presentation at the Kennedy School. What he had to say is frightening to anyone who is worried about the future of our nation.

It had been an article of faith for most of the 20th century that each successive generation of Americans would do better than the previous one. But since the early 1980s, the trends in social, cultural, and material resources show a sharp divergence between working-class families and middle- to upper-middle-class families.

Putnam found that working-class kids have become increasingly isolated from social institutions, are less connected with other people, and are doing less well in school.

“How you do in America more and more comes down to how well you choose your parents,” he said. “And that is not fair.”

In trying to explain these concepts to then-President George W. Bush in the mid-2000s, Putnam remembers an observation by then-First Lady Laura Bush: “If you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your house, or your job, you have less energy to invest in your kids.”

And the institutions that used to fill the gaps — municipal recreation departments, church groups, fraternal organizations — are not as robust as they used to be.

“Middle-class families can buy alternatives to the things that used to be provided by government and civil society,” said Putnam. “Working-class families don’t have that luxury.”

This inequality, Putnam said, has led to a growing sense of isolation and mistrust among children from lower-income families. His preliminary data finds that lower-income children participate less in after-school activities, they go to church less frequently, and they are less likely to get involved with organizations such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.

“Working-class kids, over the last 20 years or so, have become more and more isolated from all major social institutions,” Putnam said. “And these kids know that they are being ignored by society. They know that they have been left entirely on their own, and that’s a serious, serious problem.”

That’s why Putnam believes the frame being used to discuss economic inequality — the 99 percent versus the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans — is not totally inaccurate.

“This gap is happening in the 99 percent,” he said. “And since economic inequality is such a hard sell to many Americans, it needs to be framed in a different way.”

And the different way is focusing on children, the widening gap in achievement by social class, and the growing realization that the American dream of children doing better economically than their parents is fading fast.

* * *

The main takeaway from Putnam’s talk was that we are now two Americas, separate and unequal. There is the America that is financially secure and has access to good education, and then there is the America that finds itself shut out of the game.

Education remains the chief determinant for how well someone does in life. Right now, the unemployment rate for an adult with a college degree is about 5 percent, while adults without a high-school diploma have a 15-percent unemployment rate.

According to Brookings Institution economists Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, three factors determine whether someone is consigned to a lifetime of poverty. A young person who graduates from high school, gets a job, and gets married and waits until after age 21 to have children has a nearly 75-percent chance at making it into the middle class.

Yet today, a child born into poverty in Britain, Canada, France, or Germany has a better chance at moving up the economic ladder than a child in the United States.

According to Haskins and Sawhill, more than two-thirds of U.S. children born into low-income households grow up to earn a below-average income, while only 6 percent make into the top 20 percent of income earners.

* * *

So how do you solve the problem? By doing the things that we haven’t been doing for the past three decades, such as increased funding for education and public services, and promoting policies that rebuild social capital.

Putnam believes it is unlikely that inequality of opportunity will become a campaign issue in November’s election.

But the issue should nonetheless be on every American’s radar.

A nation that finds itself more and more class-bound, with less and less social mobility, is a nation that is in deep trouble.

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