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How low social mobility hurts children — and what we need to do about it

The presumptive 2016 presidential candidates are obsessed with helping people climb the economic ladder. Jeb Bush named his PAC "Right to Rise," in an explicit nod to the issue. Hillary Clinton is focused on boosting middle-class incomes. And Rand Paul has said the Republican Party's policies are the ticket to the middle class.

This is exactly what political scientist Robert Putnam was hoping for a few years ago, when he set out to start his next big project: a book on the differences between growing up rich and poor in America. Putnam's latest book, Our Kids, is now out, and it's filled with personal and sometimes wrenching tales of American youth at both the bottom and the top of the economic ladder. We asked him about the growing gulf between those kids and how it can be closed. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

"A plea to my fellow citizens: do we really want to live in this kind of country?"

Danielle Kurtzleben: What inspired you to write this book?

Robert Putnam: Two things, really. An undergraduate of mine had done a paper in my basic seminar on social capital almost 10 years ago. There was a standard generalization in the literature that young people were volunteering more than they had previously. She thought that wasn’t true — it certainly wasn’t true in her high school. She was herself actually from a quite low-income background.

And she said she thought the only reason there was a rise in volunteering was kids padding their resumes to try to get into Harvard.

Look what's happening to the kids in the lower parts of our society. And how that is damaging our future.

It turned out she was right — the growth in volunteering was entirely concentrated among kids who were headed to college and who were coming from college-educated homes. It turned out she had picked one corner of a much larger phenomenon, which was that these working-class kids where she had grown up — and they were typical nationwide — were less involved in church, were lower on social trust, had fewer friends, and so on.

The second part of the story is that I had long been aware, just as all of us are, about the long growth in economic inequality that is the income distribution. That growing gap at the top and the bottom is obviously a really basic feature of our time.

I had always wondered a little bit: "I wonder if there are any effects of that on kids."

And of course you see, I think, how the two sparks sort of cross.

Danielle Kurtzleben: Who do you see as the audience for Our Kids?

Robert Putnam:I wrote the book not for my academic colleagues. This is a book I was writing for other American citizens, because this growing gap, which I came to call an opportunity gap, for me has this mesmerizing quality. The more you realize it's happening, you see signs of it all around you.

And it's hard to turn away from. You want to tell everybody: "Look what's happening to the kids in the lower parts of our society. And think how that is damaging our country’s future."

So this is really a kind of a plea to my fellow citizens. Do we really want to live in this kind of country? Do we really want to live in a country in which it isn't even approximately true that everyone has a fair start in life? And it's getting worse and worse.

I thought that probably most people in America would be persuaded more by stories than by charts, and that’s why in this book, unlike with anything I've ever written before, we have all these stories of kids.

How the well-off and the poor are moving farther and farther apart

Danielle Kurtzleben: There's a sense today that people are moving farther apart in the US, not just in terms of income but in that the rich and poor have less and less contact with each other. You talked to a lot of people at the top and bottom of the income ladder for this story. Did you get a sense from them that they have no idea how the other half lives, so to speak?

Robert Putnam: Yes, although the distortions are not symmetrical. The bottom knows a lot more about the top, because of media and television and so on, than the top knows about the bottom.

At the bottom, they do know there are rich people, and they know the lifestyles of the rich and famous. [But] they have not the faintest idea about how to begin moving up the ladder. So in that sense, they don't have a good view.

It's not that they don't understand how rich Donald Trump is. They don’t even know: how would you find out what is the right math course to take each term? That’s the level of their lack of savvy, and it's very pervasive.

The top actually suffers from a different kind of misperception: it is that many of them are self-made people. That is, like me, actually — and not that I'm entirely self-made. I came from a pretty modest background, and I've done pretty well in life. Before I did this project I thought, "Well, you know, I made my way up the ladder, and if somebody's talented and they're on the lower rung, probably they can do the same thing."

Putnam at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. (The Washington Post/Getty Images Contributor)

Unless you’re sensitive to it, and you're in the upper part of the opportunity gap, there are things you’re doing for your kids — or if you're a kid, things that are being done for you — that you don’t even recognize as being enormously advantageous.

When your mom drives you to soccer practice, that doesn't seem like it's that big a deal in boosting you up the economic ladder, but we know actually it is.

And when your next-door neighbor says, "Don't try for Brown, but boy, Stanford is really great," or whatever, that kind of informal advice you're getting, you don't count that as, "Oh, there's another of my advantages" — it's just life. But when you juxtapose the everyday lives of the kids growing up at the top and the kids growing up at the bottom, you see these things that are missing in the lives of the poor kids.

One last point to make. The families [at the top] we interviewed are all quite comfortable, but they’re not Bill Gates. And the people we interviewed at the bottom, although they’re living pretty terrible lives, they're not the bottom. Every single one of the lower kids we interviewed and who appear in the book have some sort of high school degree. Either they actually graduated from high school, or they have a GED. But we know that of the kids from the lower third, fully 30 percent of them don't even finish high school. And what that means is there's another really far-down group that doesn't even appear in our book.

Danielle Kurtzleben: You take issue in your book with Raj Chetty and Emmanuel Saez's contention that mobility has held steady — you point out that their figures are out of date, and you think it has in fact fallen. Have you talked to them about that? What do they say?

Robert Putnam: I have. We cooperate with one another. We’re anything but adversaries, actually. We just disagree about the question of how reliably you can determine a kid’s lifetime income at age 25. And Chetty believes that his data shows you can reliably determine a kid's final lifetime income from whatever his income is at age 25 or 26. That is a quite unorthodox view. The standard view among people who do that research — this is not just me, it's the standard view — is you can’t tell for sure what a person’s income is going to be like until he's about 40.

None of the kids in my book are yet old enough to appear in Raj's world, because they’re not even 25 yet. But we won’t know for sure how they’re going to do until they're, roughly speaking, 40, which is another couple decades from now. So a couple of decades from now, Raj and I will have a drink at the Harvard Faculty Club, and we'll then know whether he was right or I was.

Making the opportunity gap the "chief domestic issue" in the 2016 presidential race

Danielle Kurtzleben: You also see the book as a way to mobilize political candidates.

Robert Putnam: My original aspiration when we started about three, four years ago, which at the time seemed silly, was that we could help contribute to making this issue of the opportunity gap the chief domestic issue in the presidential election of 2016. I wanted — and it wouldn't be me alone, of course — to contribute to making this the litmus issue. If you didn't have an answer to this question, I hoped, you wouldn't be a serious presidential candidate. And I think we've made some progress.

I don't want to take credit — or at least not all the credit — for that happening, but it is happening on both sides of the aisle, and I think that's great.

Danielle Kurtzleben: You said you wanted mobility to be big in the election, and that's certainly happening. What now? Is it that we have to pick the right candidate, or is it more about making sure everyone just keeps talking about mobility?

Robert Putnam: In answering that question, let me go back quickly to the progressive era [in the early 20th century]. In the end, the real innovations, the real policy breakthroughs in that era, did not come in Washington. The real innovations and policy revolutions occurred in the most bizarre places: Toledo, Ohio, and Galveston, Texas, and so on.

If you look at the history of the progressive era, that's where the action was. Women's suffrage came first in the Wyoming territory.

I think this book might contribute to a longer process that could profoundly change America

Why would that happen? The point is the national conversation — William Jennings Bryan and all the other people who were talking nationally — gave oxygen to local reformers in particular places, in Omaha or god knows where, and gradually that movement at the grass roots became so dominant that it then actually did change things in Washington. But the legislative change at the national level, which was mostly from, roughly speaking, 1908 to 1914 — that was the last age of massive social reform.

That's sort of what I have in mind. Now, I'm a college professor. I can hardly determine the future of America, but that’s the way in which I think this book, Our Kids, might contribute to a longer process that could profoundly change America in a more egalitarian direction.

"What can I do right now?"

Danielle Kurtzleben: There are some heartbreaking tales in Our Kids. I'm sure a lot of people will read this book and ask themselves how they can change this. What would you tell someone who's more affluent who picks up this book and wants to change things?

Robert Putnam: Chapter 6 [titled "What is to be done?"] is aimed at exactly that person. We can join others to press for important public policy changes, and that includes stuff like early childhood education, where the evidence is overwhelming that providing early childhood education makes a huge difference in the physiological brain development of kids. And that puts [poorer kids] behind the eight ball when they're still one or two or three years old.

So if I’m talking to an ordinary fellow citizen — and that's what I'm doing in the book — you should work with your friends and neighbors and push hard for having universal early childhood education.

There are other examples like that. And can I just read you one paragraph? Because it captures this:

If you’re concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you can do right now: close this book. Visit your school superintendent. Better yet, take a friend with you. And ask if your school has a pay-to-play policy [for extracurricular activities]. Explain that waivers aren't worth the paper they're written on, because they force kids to wear a virtual yellow star, saying, 'I'm so poor my parent's can't afford the regular fee.' Explain that everyone in the school will be better off if anyone in the school can be on the team or in the band. Insist that pay-to-play be ended. And while you're there ask if there are things you can do to help the local schools serve poor kids more effectively, both in the classroom and outside.

That was an example of where I’m trying to say, "Forget about the big national debates. Here’s something you personally could do."

And there are lots of things that could be done. Providing mentors — poor kids have plenty of unreliable adults in their lives; they need one or two reliable adults in their lives. And that's what we could do individually.

There’s a caricature of my position ... which is that I think all that needs to be done is for us to hug more kids. That's not what I believe. It’s very bad for kids to grow up in a poor home, and we've got to do some big, national things to try to improve the job and income picture for working-class Americans. And then there are other big things we've got to do in spending a lot more money on low-income schools.

I answered your question of "What can I do right now?", and I do think that's an important part of the story, but that's not sufficient to solve the problem.

Lead image: Peat Bakke


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