Our Kids, Our Future

In one of his last interviews before disappearing to write his next book, Robert Putnam spoke with Jane Williams on Bloomberg EDU about the growing gap in social mobility among U.S. children.
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In one of his last interviews before disappearing to write his next book, Robert Putnam, The Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, spoke with Jane Williams on Bloomberg EDU about the growing gap in social mobility among U.S. children.

Professor Putnam is busily drafting Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, a story of the "opportunity gap" in the United States that deals with today's class divide and lack of social mobility. This is, according to Putnam, "fundamentally a moral issue." One of the ways to address it, he says, is through community school partnerships that promote academic achievement, youth development, family and community well-being.

The bestselling author of fourteen books, including Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, expects his current book to come out in 2015.

Rich. Poor. Liberal. Conservative. Yours. Ours. We are talking about today's kids. "After all they are our future," says Putnam.

Robert Putnam Discussion Highlights:

A Growing Class Divide
"...I'm talking about a division, a growing gap, among our kids, the next generation. There is a sharply growing gap between what we might loosely call rich kids and poor kids... I'm comparing kids whose parents have a college degree, that's about the upper third of American kids with kids whose parents didn't get beyond high school. That's the lowest third of the American population.

"...Kids like my grandchildren who are born and have two college-educated parents, they're doing better than ever. But out there someplace in America, each of my grandchildren has a counterpart who's just as smart and just as eager to go ahead and so on but who made a mistake of being born to parents who didn't get past high school. And the chances for kids like that have sharply declined over the last 30 years."

Shift in Social Mobility
"It will be another 15 or 20 years before we know what the outcome of their [those who experience the sharpest discrepancy between well-off and less well-off kids] life is likely to be. We can see in their schoolwork and their preschool work and in their period at college, we can see where they're headed. We can see that these two different types of kids are headed in sharply different directions.

"But the real effect in terms of measured social mobility won't show up until they become adults. The problem with waiting until the problem is that obvious is that by then we'll be 30 or 40 years into the problem. And if we're going to fix it, it's one we ought to be getting started on now."

The American Dream Undone
"It's now becoming unmistakable that there is this growing cleavage in our society. And it's important because it goes to the very heart of the meaning of the American dream. Do we all begin at roughly the same point on the ladder?

"I think people don't actually yet fully realize how dramatic have been the changes in the lives of our young kids over the last 20 or 25 years. And therefore I think people don't yet fully appreciate the risk that we're running with respect to the American dream.

"The risk is that increasingly, if you are a young kid your chances in life depend very heavily on one decision: choosing your parents... And that's fundamentally really unfair. It will mean substantially lower opportunities for upward mobility."

A Perfect Storm: Changes in Family Structure, Growing Income Gap
"It's partly changes in family structure, that is the increase of single-parent families among less well-off families, sharp increase actually, and no change, actually a slight increase in two-parent families among college-educated families.

"Part of it is the growing income gap, of course, which has led to much greater economic stress and psychological stress on working-class families. And that feeds through into the way they raise their kids..."

Education: Part of the Solution
"...if we think carefully, education can be part of the solution. I'm careful in saying that because I think there's a tendency now to blame education for all of America's ills. And I don't think that's at all fair. I think the educational institutions are doing a pretty good job given the problems that are being dumped on them.

"I think that just investing more in public education is itself a good idea. But I also think that investing in high quality early childhood education is crucial because we can see these growing gaps when kids are only one or two years old. This is happening well before kids get into school..."

A Holistic Approach to Our Kids
"...it's a problem that we need to address in a holistic way, thinking about the family and community context, not just the schools.

"I think that the underlying issue though, and this is the most fundamental point I'd make, is that a couple of generations ago, we lived in a very different America in which people thought about, when they used the term 'our kids,' when my parents used the term 'our kids,' they did not mean my sister and me. They meant all the kids in town.

"So when they said, 'We've got to do something for our kids. We've got to get a new swimming pool' or 'We've got to improve the math teaching or whatever for our kids,' they didn't mean for me and my sister, Elaine. They meant for all the kids in town. The meaning of the term 'our kids' has narrowed frighteningly. And now, these poor kids are nobody's kids basically. And that's the frightening, most fundamental thing we've got to change."

Fundamentally a Moral Issue
"The same opportunities ought to be available to other kids who aren't our own biological offspring... What I'm suggesting is not that we should put limits on what parents do for their kids, but that we should think of all kids as our kids. We've talked to hundreds of poor kids around America. So we know how isolated they are from any family or community support. And I think if we thought of those kids really as our kids, virtually everyone in America, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, would say, 'Well, if that's my kid, we ought to be doing more for that kid' and not putting brakes on or hampering our own kids but think of those kids as our kids, too. After all, they are our future. They're economic future. They're our political future. And they're our moral future. I think this is fundamentally a moral issue."

To find out more about efforts to mend the growing gap, we also spoke with Jane Quinn, director of the National Center for Community Schools and vice president for Community Schools at the Children's Aid Society, and Tony Smith, former Oakland Unified School District superintendent who is now the executive director of Chicago-based W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation.

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