Volume XV | Issue 2 | Fall 2015
Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids Photo: Martha Stewart/Harvard Kennedy School

The haves and have-nots

Widening income gaps bring profound changes to family life

The best clue to the subject matter of social scientist Robert Putnam’s latest best-selling book is in the title, Our Kids. As Putnam surveys the growing schism between the haves and have-nots in America today, he pounds this concept home: Until we think of children — all children — as our own, our society is in trouble.

a series of stories

Putnam takes readers on a journey of discovery all over America, from his Ohio hometown to the Central Oregon town of Bend; from Atlanta, Ga., to Orange County, Calif. The book is a series of stories about the people in these towns, the families and their children. Putnam’s book seeks to answer one essential question: Do youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds in fact have roughly equal life chances, and has that changed in recent decades? 

That is, after all, the American dream — that everyone can succeed, no matter how humble their beginnings. With our society undergoing a fundamental class shift as the income gap widens, it is not surprising that Putnam unequivocally concludes that, yes, Americans are facing a crisis today. There is a growing gap between the lives of rich and poor children, and those coming from poverty are facing horrifyingly reduced prospects.

Differences in Bend, Ore.

Putnam illustrates class differences with a revealing portrait of two different families in Bend, a town that underwent a rapid shift in socio-economic makeup when it was “discovered” in the ‘70s. One Bend family has two college-educated parents. The dad runs a thriving construction company and the mom stays home. The two children are successful students with established work ethics and a happy outlook on life. 

In the other family, living just five miles away, things are much different. The parents have had prior relationships and marriages, and the family is more fragile. The daughter is depressed and neglected, had difficulty with school and does not have much hope that things are going to get better. 

What do these differing situations mean to our society at large? “Increasingly, parents from different social classes are doing very different things to and for their kids, with massively consequential results,” Putnam says.

Widening gap

The upper middle class, Putnam says, exhibits significant investments of time, money and thoughtful care in raising their kids. That is often not possible in families on the other end of the scale, and children in poorer circumstances are increasingly being subjected to stressful environments from an early age, which often has lifelong consequences that are costly for our society. 

The widening class-based opportunity gap among young people is real, but it’s not without hope for a better future, Putnam says. The solution starts with the acknowledgement that the problem affects every one of us. “For America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids,” he says. 

Read an excerpt:. 

OUR KIDS: An American Dream in Crisis

By Robert Putnam

As my classmates and I marched down the steps after graduation in 1959, none of us had any inkling that change was coming. Almost half of us headed off to college, and those who stayed in town had every reason to expect they would get a job (if they were male), get married, and lead a comfortable life, just as their parents had done. For about a decade those expectations were happily met.

But just beyond the horizon an economic, social, and cultural whirlwind was gathering force nationally that would radically transform the life chances of our children and grandchildren. For many people, its effects would be gut-wrenching, for Port Clinton turns out to be a poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades.

The manufacturing foundation upon which Port Clinton’s modest prosperity had been built in the 1950s and 1960s began to tremble in the 1970s. The big Standard Products factory at the east end of town had provided nearly 1,000 steady, well-paying blue-collar jobs in the 1950s, but in the 1970s the payroll was trimmed to less than half that, and after more than two decades of layoffs and givebacks, the plant gates on Maple Street finally closed in 1993. Twenty years later, only the hulking ruins of the plant remain, with EPA signs on the barbed wire fence warning of environmental hazard.  

Copyright © 2015 by Robert D. Putnam. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Our Kids is available for free to residents of Oregon and Siskiyou County, Calif., through Select Books.

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