Tamsin McMahon

‘America is moving toward a caste society’

Harvard academic Robert Putnam on the death of the American Dream and why being poor in America is no longer a matter of race

Photo courtesy Robert Putnam

Associated Press

Prominent Harvard academic Robert Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone and American Grace, two seminal studies on the decline of both social connectedness and faith in America. These days he’s become transfixed by America’s growing class divide. In his forthcoming book (due out next year) Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis he examines all the ways today’s middle- and upper-class American children are doing better than previous generations—they’re thinner, more trusting and perform better in school—while poor and working class are struggling more than ever before.

He was in Toronto April 7 giving the Cadario Lecture at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.

Q: You’ve studied changes in social connections and religion. Why did you want to tackle the class divide?

A: Roughly five years ago, in an undergraduate seminar, we were talking about what was happening to social capital among young people. One of the generalizations in the literature had been that there had been a growth in volunteering. One junior said: “I don’t believe that.” In the high school she went to, which is a very poor high school in Oregon, almost nobody volunteered. It was mostly working-class kids and those people who volunteered were people who wanted to get into Harvard and Stanford and they were doing it not because they were nice, but so they could pad their resumé. We found a good data set no one had ever used before and she did the analysis and she found that while there was this growth [in volunteerism], when she broke it down the growth was entirely among kids who were headed to college and not at all among kids who were not heading to college. The real variable turned out to be whether the kids’ parents were educated or not. There was an upturn in volunteering among kids coming from relatively well-off homes and no uptick at all from kids coming from less well-educated homes.

We pushed a little bit further and it turned out there were other patterns of connectedness that showed the same shocking [divergence]. People from college-educated homes were going to church more than ever, but people from high school-educated homes were going to church much less than ever before. We began to see a whole string of what we called “scissors graphs,” in which the line for kids coming from well-off homes was rising and the line for kids who were coming from less well-off homes was declining. It looked the same for trust: upper-middle-class kids trust each other just about as much as they ever did, but working-class kids are plummeting to the degree that they trust other people. Middle-class kids are more likely to take part in sports than they used to; working-class kids are way less likely to take part in sports. It was true for obesity. Among kids from college-educated homes, the obesity epidemic ended 10 years ago. But among kids coming from high school-educated homes the obesity graph is accelerating.

Q: You talk about the importance of what you call “Goodnight Moon time”—how college-educated parents are spending more time reading to their kids while high school-educated parents are not. Did you actually ask people how much time they spend reading Goodnight Moon to their kids?

A: That’s just our slogan for the measure of how much developmental time parents spend with their kids, not changing diapers, but doing something with their children that is aimed at development. Goodnight Moon time is crucially important for the development of kids’ brains. That is, interacting verbally with your children and especially reading to them. It’s super-important for their IQ and their achievement in school and for how many friends they have. Goodnight Moon time has actually risen for all kids, but it’s risen way faster for kids whose parents are educated, partly because of another one of these scissor graphs: single-parent versus two-parent families. Over the last 30 or 40 years, the fraction of kids whose parents have a college education who are living with only one parent has barely budged. It’s risen from something like seven per cent to something like nine per cent. Meanwhile, among working-class kids that number has risen from something like 15 per cent to something like 80 per cent. I’m not making a moral point here at all. It’s just easier to do Goodnight Moon reading when there are two of you at home. So even though working-class moms are trying to do more Goodnight Moon time, there are only 24 hours in the day. So as of today, the average kid coming from a home with educated parents gets an hour more Goodnight Moon time a day. That is an astonishing thing. That’s like each of them, every day, getting super vitamins at exactly the right time to change the neural connections in the prefrontal cortex.

If you follow the train of thought you realize that basically what we’re seeing is America is moving toward a caste society, where a lot of your fate in life is being determined just by the one decision that you never did make, which is who your parents are going to be. It’s like we’re having this mile-long race, but the upper-class kids get put out at the half-mile marker and the working-class kids are starting back further and we’re making them run with their ankles tied together. You can see where this is headed. It’s a sociological nightmare if you’re worried about the future of America.

Q: You say this issue isn’t about race; that the biggest gaps are among white families.

A: When we first started looking at this, I thought what were seeing is really another aspect of the racial gap in America, because I thought that these poor kids were probably mostly coming from racial minorities and the upper-class kids were white. But it turned out that when we controlled for race, the growth of the gap was entirely among white kids. The top third of kids were doing better than ever and working-class kids were doing worse and worse, even among whites. So it can’t have been among race. Indeed, you could see something of the same gap growing even among black kids. That is even among black kids, upper-class kids were doing better than they used to and those from less well-educated homes were doing worse.

In the book we compare three black kids, all living in Atlanta. One is a living in a well-to-do suburban home with two wonderful, loving parents. His mom takes her kids to the Anne Frank house and before she goes there they all read Anne Frank’s diary and she gives her kids a quiz on it. The second is a single mom, not very well educated, who lives in a very dangerous neighbourhod. She’s a really good mom, but she is not acting like our black mom in the upper-class suburb. She’s worried mostly about her kids not getting pulled into the ghetto. Two of her kids have gotten pulled into the ghetto and two of her kids haven’t. The third, Elijah, is basically a black kid who was raised on the street. His parents essentially abandoned him when he was a year or two old. He went to live with some grandparents in New Orleans who were terrible parents. By the time this kid was five years old, he had personally witnessed three murders. You can just imagine, while this upper-class black family is doing all these wonderful things to ensure that their kid’s prefrontal cortex is being developed, at that same time this other black kid is physically scared to death. Then you run this story forward. The child of the upper-class family has got a great job as a biochemist working for the Centers for Disease Control. Elijah is cycling in and out of drugs and alcohol. He doesn’t have any family. He’s living on the street. He says he shouldn’t like beating up people, but he admits it’s kind of a high. You look at these two guys and you imagine that they were the same little bits of protoplasm. It’s not about race. It has everything to do with this growing apart of America, this polarization of American society between those of us who are doing all right and those of us who aren’t.

Q: In the U.S., as in Canada, we spend a lot of time worrying about the decline of manufacturing jobs and what that means for the middle class and how we can get those jobs back. Is that what’s driving this growing gap?

A: I start the book off talking about my home town of Port Clinton, Ohio. There the deindustrialization story fits. It’s just an ordinary little town where it used to be people connected and everybody did well and now it’s just divided into rich kids and poor kids. But we have done lots of life stories of real kids in Atlanta, Ga., and Austin, Texas, and Orange County, Calif., and Bend, Ore., and Duluth, Minn., and Philadelphia and Boston. Many of those are not rust-belt cities, but in every one of those places you can see exactly the same thing happening.

Q: What is it if it’s not deindustrialization?

A: Basically all parts of American society are failing these kids. Poor kids in America now, compared to 30 years ago, have been ignored and isolated by every major social institution. They’re no longer as connected to their family. They’re no longer as connected to the schools. They’re no longer as connected to the community institutions, the churches, the Scouts. They have fewer mentors and friends. You can see the number of people they say that they trust and they can talk to is declining. It’s not that this is an adolescent epidemic of paranoia. If you talk to these kids it’s perfectly clear that it would be nuts for them to say that you could trust other people because everybody in their lives has failed them.

There used to be a whole dense civil society who worried about all the kids in the neighbourhood. Most parts of that fabric have disappeared over the last 20 years. So if a chick falls from a nest in a working-class neighbourhood it used to be there was a net there to catch them. Now if a chick falls out of the nest—real people in real neighbourhoods that we’ve talked to—there is just nothing down there to catch the kids except gangs. I’m not talking about just ethnic minorities; I’m talking about white kids.

Q: The title of your book is Our Kids. Do you think we still care about other people’s kids?

A: When I was growing up in Port Clinton, when my parents talked about “our kids”—when they said “we’ve got to have good schools here for our kids”—they did not mean my sister and me. They meant all the kids in town. Even after my sister and I graduated and left Port Clinton, my parents were still voting to raise taxes on themselves for “our kids.” That’s what you did as a decent human being, you worried about other people’s kids. But the term “our kids” over the last 30-40 years has shrivelled and shrunk. Now “our kids” means our biological children. So saving for our kids’ education does not mean we’re saving for every kid in town to go to college, it means we’re saving so our kids can go to college. That shrivelling of a sense of shared responsibility is visible in many, many ways. It’s visible in the tax structure. It’s visible in who’s paying attention to Elijah. Elijah isn’t anybody’s kid now. Even within the black community there is this radical individualization of a sense of obligation.

Q: Upward mobility is obviously an important part of the American Dream, but isn’t individualism and the freedom to be yourself and chart your own destiny also part of it?

A: People are inclined to think of America as a bunch of cowboys that value individualism. Maybe compared to Canada that’s true. But compared to our own history that wasn’t always true. I can point to particular episodes in American history where we have decided to worry about other people’s kids. About 100 years ago Americans invented the public high school. The invention of the public high school was the idea that everybody in town would pay for the high school, even if you didn’t have kids. Lots of upper-middle-class people voted to tax themselves to pay for other people’s kids. Nobody thought it was socialist. Why is that any different from voting now to say that people like me should pay more taxes to spend on early childhood education, to spend on a little more Goodnight Moon time for lower-class kids? My bet, what I’m spending my time doing, is thinking how we can frame this issue in a way that won’t seem like socialism or Scandinavia. This is what we do in America. We’ve often, many times in our history, agreed that it was good for society to invest in other people’s kids.

Q: You describe this as a moral problem. Are there political solutions to it? And can America’s deeply divided political system ever agree to them?

A: I’ve spoken personally at some length with a lot of senior politicians. I’ve spent a couple of hours in the White House with President Obama and I’ve talked to Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan and Hillary Clinton, talking about this issue. Not one of them said: “Go away, we’ve got more important problems.” If you frame it in terms of the kids and equality of opportunity, not equality of [income], it’s so fundamental that no one will say: “Screw Elijah, tough luck for him.” They disagree over what we should do for Elijah. What I want is a debate between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. I’ve spoken to both about this issue and both genuinely care about the issue. If we’re lucky enough that those are the two [2016 presidential] nominees, that would be kind of fun to have a debate about how best to fix this problem. In the end, the answer will partly be blue and partly be red.

Q: President Barack Obama has said that he will measure his legacy by whether he has helped rebuild the ladders into the middle class. How do you think he’s doing with that?

A: I think what he’s doing is framing the issue in the right way. He’s trying to make this issue impossible for other politicians to walk away from. The [Affordable] Care Act, in this context, is terrifically important because it’s ensuring that poor kids get adequate health care. He gets super points for that from a social equity point of view. Beyond that, a lot of the things he’s proposed but can’t get by Congress are actually the right things to do. For example, massively expanding early childhood education is the best single thing that can be done. He can’t get that done, so if I were grading him, I’d grade him as an incomplete. But the one thing I would give him high points for is that I think he’s made it almost impossible for anybody who wants to be a leading politician in America over the next five years to ignore this issue. And actually they’re not. Everyone has got to have a policy on social mobility. That’s a good thing, because once you start talking about the issue, once you start talking to these kids, I know where it will go. It’s very hard to look at these kids and not think it’s immoral for their fate to be dependent upon who they chose to be their parents.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.
  • By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.