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.”
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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.”
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