It wasn’t so long ago that communities embraced their local youth as “our kids,” regardless of their family and social background.
Not so today, says Robert Putnam, author of a bestseller that chronicles the separate and unequal worlds of rich and poor, and how these disparities are reshaping our nation’s culture and future.
Putnam lays out a compelling case for why we should be concerned in “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” which is out in paperback on Tuesday.
In clear, concise prose, Putnam cites an impressive body of research and tells the stories of families from across the country to explain how life circumstances are worsening for today’s poor children. He points to an “opportunity gap” that has developed in recent decades between kids from have and have-not backgrounds as particularly worrisome. As prospects for upward mobility diminish for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, the gap has widened.
The costs of underinvesting in poor kids are even greater in an era of globalization, Putnam notes, because of the mismatch between what low-skilled workers can do and what fast-changing companies need. “Writing off such a large fraction of our youth is an awfully expensive course of inaction,” he says.
Putnam is a Harvard University professor and noted academic whose earlier bestseller, “Bowling Alone,” focused attention on America’s changing social structures. He begins “Our Kids” in his childhood hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950s, a place he remembers as “a fairly passable embodiment of the American Dream.” While class disparities were present, they didn’t prevent the poor kids from pursuing opportunities comparable to their more affluent peers, he writes.
However, Putnam reports that Port Clinton today is a vastly different place, with wealthy families living in exclusive lakefront communities having little, if any, interaction with neighbors living nearby that are struggling to survive.
“The opportunity gap has widened partly because affluent kids now enjoy more advantages than affluent kids then, but mostly because poor kids now are in much worse shape than their counterparts then,” Putnam observes. And this disturbing trend is replicated around the country, he maintains, citing examples in cities and suburbs across the nation.
Education has become an increasingly important indicator of social class, according to Putnam. And here again the gap is widening as poor kids graduate from college at a much lower rate than their more affluent peers. Studies show that a family’s socioeconomic status has become even more important than test scores in predicting which eighth-graders would graduate from college.
“Even more shocking, high-scoring poor kids are now slightly less likely to get a college degree than low-scoring rich kids,” Putnam writes. “That last fact is particularly hard to square with the idea at the heart of the American dream: equality of opportunity.”
“Our Kids” is a challenging, important and thoughtful examination of issues of critical concern today. Narrowing the opportunity gap won’t be easy — but as Putnam makes clear, it’s imperative we make the effort.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, which airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on Boise State Public State radio, KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Robert Putnam airs today. Previous shows are online at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.