Lecture explores effects of modern socioeconomic gap
Courtney Becker | Friday, March 18, 2016
Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University, gave a lecture on Thursday based on his book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” about the differences in opportunities for kids from affluent families and kids from low-income families.
Putnam said while America has grown in several ways in the last 50 years, opportunity gaps have become an increasing problem in this country.
“We’ve made a lot of progress on many fronts, but in one important way, America has moved in the wrong direction over the past 30 or 40 years,” Putnam said. “America is now fairly far down the road towards moving toward a two-tier hereditary class system in America, and that would make this a very different country.”
This problem is not only due to income inequality, Putnam said, but also because people are now more frequently living “class-based lives” and interacting with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds less often.
“America has become a more unequal society in economic terms,” he said. “A little less well-known but actually, I think, maybe more portentous is that we’ve become, also, a more segregated society in terms of social class. … Increasingly, we’re either living in rich enclaves with other rich folks, or in poor enclaves with other poor folks, and fewer and fewer of us are living in mixed or moderate-income neighborhoods.”
Another contributing factor to this issue is that social connections within these different communities have decreased, as well, Putnam said.
“Social bonds, community ties within a family, within a community, within the working class in America, have seriously deteriorated over the last 30 or 40 years,” he said. “The social bonds that used to be an important part of life in working-class America are now much weaker than they used to be.”
Putnam said these factors are combining to divide America into two categories, creating problems for kids in a lower class.
“The fact that we’re economically more unequal, the fact that we’re sociologically more segregated, the fact that working class people — the social ties that used to be an important part of our lives — are fragmenting and becoming much, much weaker — what are the implications of all that for kids?” he asked. “Even in little towns all across America, we can see these trends driving America toward a two-class society.”
Kids from low-income families increasingly feel they cannot trust anyone, Putnam said, creating a sense of isolation from the rest of society.
“Poor kids in America today, unlike poor kids in America 30 or 40 years ago, are alone,” he said. “They’re disconnected from all adult institutions. … They are alone, and they can’t trust anybody — and they know it.”
Putnam said one particularly harmful mindset that has developed is being concerned only with one’s own offspring instead of all children throughout America.
“Over the course of the last 30 or 40 years in America, the meaning of ‘our kids’ — that is, our sense of our responsibility to other kids in town, apart from our own — has shriveled, so now when people say ‘our kids’ they mean their own biological kids,” he said. “That shriveling of our sense of responsibility for other people’s kids is the core problem here. … That failure to worry about other people’s kids is a key moral failing.”
Despite this negative trend, though, there is reason to believe America can solve the problem of opportunity gaps, Putnam said.
“I’m optimistic that we can solve this problem, and it is because this is not the first time that America has faced this kind of a problem,” he said. “Americans recognized the problem and began to fix the problem.”
Putnam said the solution to this problem in the early 19th century was the invention of the public high school.
“[The public high school] was aimed to narrow the opportunity gap to make it easier for everybody, all kids, to have a fair chance in life,” he said. “Free, public, secondary education for all kids in town — that idea was invented in America in 1910. Nowhere else in the world were there free, public secondary schools for all kids. … It was the best public policy decision America has ever made.”
Rather than being initiated by a famous university or the United States government, public high school first appeared in small towns in the Midwest, proving this type of change may be sparked by anyone who cares enough to get involved in his or her community and offering hope that America can solve this problem once again, Putnam said.
“Big change in America more often comes from the bottom-up than the top-down,” Putnam said. “It mostly comes from smart, engaged, ordinary civic activists and civic leaders looking at their own community and saying, ‘We’ve got some problems here, how do we fix it?’”