Volume XV | Issue 2 | Fall 2015
“I am optimistic because our country has successfully addressed problems like this before,” says author and social scientist Robert Putnam. “Worrying about other people’s kids is really a form of enlightened self interest.” Photo: Martha Stewart/Harvard Kennedy School

'they are on their own'

The widening gap between well-off and poor children

Here’s the good news: Upper middle class youth are doing better than ever before. Community activities are up. Shared family time is increasing. College attendance rates are holding steady.

segregated along social class lines

“Those are my grandchildren, and it’s wonderful,” renowned social scientist Robert Putnam told an Oregon audience recently. “But it’s dangerous for society. We are rapidly becoming segregated along social class lines and that has powerful implications for future society.”

While opportunities are steadily increasing for the upper middle class, exactly the opposite is happening on the other end of the scale. And that is the bad news, and it’s very bad. 

“Poor kids in America are increasingly on their own and alone. They have less connection with schools, churches, Scouts and the community; they are on their own, and they know it. Many are unbelievably cynical,” Putnam said.

Putnam was speaking in Portland at an event co-sponsored by The Ford Family Foundation’s Back Fence Speaker Series. The talk was simultaneously broadcast to a Roseburg audience of about 30 gathered in the Foundation’s conference center in Roseburg. 

Putnam is the author of 14 books, including the well-known Bowling Alone and, most recently, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

“Air bags inflate when affluent kids make mistakes,” Putnam says. “For poor kids, it’s one strike and you’re out.”

It didn’t used to be like that. In the 1950s and 60s, when Putnam was growing up, the middle class was expanding. Moreover, there were a lot of community members who could step in when kids needed support — coaches, church leaders, Scoutmasters. Many of those institutions have vanished for these kids, with pay-for-play sports becoming more popular, and with church attendance (formerly a strong support) taking a precipitous dive. 

Everyone’s problem

Why should we worry about kids on the downside track? Because ignoring the problem puts our entire society at risk. The lifetime cost of caring for neglected children runs into the trillions, Putnam says, in criminal justice system, health care and welfare costs.

And, maybe most important, ignoring the problem costs us missed opportunity. “The most distressing paragraph in my book looks at college completion,” Putnam says. “There are a lot of smart kids who don’t get a college degree, and the rest of us are forgoing the contributions they could have made. We are, as a society, worse off because we are not using all the smart kids.”

It’s time for things to change. Putnam predicts that the growing schism between rich and poor will become the most important issue of 2016, and even with all the bad news floating around, he’s hopeful.

“I am optimistic because our country has successfully addressed problems like this before,” he says pointing to societal changes that were undertaken during the Progressive era (1890s to 1920s), including the establishment of public schools and child labor laws. “Worrying about other people’s kids is really a form of enlightened self interest.”

He believes that a good place to start is with considering the cost of the burgeoning movement toward pay-to-play extracurricular activities. These activities — sports, music, art — are where students learn the soft skills they need to succeed, and they are also a critical source of mentors. 

“It’s just wrong to charge kids for activities that were invented so they could get the skills to take part in the economy,” Putnam said to thunderous applause from the audience. 

“And it’s cutting kids off from exactly what they need: mentors.”

Community-led efforts

Putnam expects the solution to come from community-led efforts. “I am very hopeful. I know how much civic intelligence and goodwill there are in our cities,” he says, “and I think there are enough communities in America who could get engaged with this problem and be creative.”

The concept struck a chord with the Roseburg audience. “It’s our personal responsibility, whether it’s in Roseburg, in Douglas County or in this room. It needs to look different, and it won’t until we do something at the local level,” said a community member in the discussion following Putnam’s talk. “You can’t look to leadership; we need to look to ourselves.”  

Both Bowling Alone and Our Kids are available for free to residents of Oregon and Siskiyou County, Calif., through Select Books.
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