Harvard Professor/Author Robert Putnam

The professor of public policy at Harvard, and bestselling author discusses his latest text, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Robert Putnam is a noted political scientist and public policy professor at Harvard University. Founder of The Saguaro Seminar, a program dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America, he's consulted with international leaders, including Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He's also written over a dozen books, including his latest, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam is a former Kennedy School of Government dean and served on the National Security Council staff.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Robert Putnam back to this program. He is a professor of public policy at Harvard and the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government. He is also the bestselling author of books like “Bowling Alone” and “Better Together”.

His latest text is called “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”. Before we start our conversation about that book, a look at a clip from the Netflix series, “House of Cards”, that I think that might set our conversation up quite nicely.


Tavis: I can’t imagine any U.S. President of ever going that hard in the pain. You know, just telling us that the American dream is failing us. I mean, as a matter of fact, we get the exact opposite of that.

Every year, no matter who the president is, Republican, Democrat, the refrain is the same in the annual State of the Union address. The state of our union is strong. We hear that every year. You’re making a different argument in this text.

Robert Putnam: Yeah, I am, Tavis. The argument in this book is that, over the last 30 or 40 years, there’s been a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids in America. Kids coming from relatively affluent homes are doing better and better, but kids coming from impoverished homes, kids of all races coming from poor homes, are doing worse and worse.

So there’s a kind of a growing gap between these two parts of American society and it means that it’s increasingly not true that everybody gets a fair start in life.

Tavis: What is the main source or reasons for this growing opportunity gap between the rich and the poor?

Putnam: Well, it shows up in a lot of different places. It shows up at home, it shows up in parenting that people are able to do for their kids, the amount of, you know, you could call it “Goodnight Moon” time or you could call it “Summer Camp” time. It shows up in schools and it shows up in the support kids get from their communities. But I think the underlying causes are basically three.

One, the growing income gap in America, the fact that the rich folks have a lot  more than they used to and poor folks haven’t had a raise in 30 or 40 years, and that permeates all aspects of their lives.

Secondly, and this is less well known, America’s becoming more and more segregated in class terms. I’m not just talking about race. I’m talking about class terms.

Used to be that there were some overlap. Maybe your neighbors would be from a different kind of background than you, but now rich folks are increasingly living with other rich folks, and poor folks living with other poor folks.

And what that means is these rich kids are going to school only with other rich kids and the poor kids are going to school only with other poor kids. That means that there’s much less understanding or even awareness across these class lines.

And I think that, related to that, the last point is that we’ve had a shriveling of our sense of obligation for other people. When I was growing up and my parents talked about “our kids”, they really meant all the kids in town.

They said we’ve got to pay higher taxes so that our kids can have a swimming pool here. They didn’t mean for my sister and me. They meant for all the kids in town. But now that term, “our kids”, has shriveled. They mean my biological kids and those kids are somebody else’s kids.

Tavis: To your latter point, why have Americans become so nativist, that it’s just about our kids?

Putnam: Yeah. I don’t know entirely why that’s happened. I mean, it is partly that the pendulum has been swinging.

Over the course of the last 50 years, the pendulum which used to be kind of balanced in America between respect for individual liberties, but also respect for the community, that pendulum has swung way out toward number one. I’m number one. And we just have lost this sense of concern for other people, and that’s a big deal actually.

Tavis: Talk to me about the difference between the legitimate issue of poverty and income inequality, and the other issue which is not that disconnected of economic immobility.

Putnam: Yes.

Tavis: There just aren’t enough opportunities because, I mean, on a certain level, you’re always going to have income inequality. It’s economic immobility that seems to be a problem.

Putnam: That’s right. And Americans historically have not worried as much as people in other countries have about how high the ladder was. We’ve assumed if everybody’s getting on the ladder at the same point and some people, you know, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett climb up higher, well, that’s because they’re working harder or they’re better at climbing.

But we’ve cared a lot as a country about the assumption that we’re all getting on the ladder at the same point. That is, that the opportunity for upward mobility is open to everybody, regardless of what their parents did or didn’t do.

And that’s the issue that Americans have–95% of Americans say everybody ought to be treated equally, ought to be given a chance to, you know, develop their own God-given talents and grit, but that’s less and less true. And that goes to the core value of our country.

When we declared our independence as a nation, we said to the world we believe that all men are created equal. Now, of course, at the time, we meant all white men and we meant men. We didn’t mean women.

But over time, as Martin Luther King said, that core commitment that our country believes everybody ought to have a fair shot in life, that’s been the bedrock of our country.

There have been times in the past where we’ve had a similar period to now in which the things have gotten out of kilter, such great gaps that kids don’t have the same chance. But in the past, we fixed that, and I think if we focus on it, we can fix it now. But we’ve got to focus on that like a laser on the question of making sure that all kids have a fair chance.

Tavis: How do we fix it now when our political system which would be primarily responsible for this is so dysfunctional, when the system is broken, and in many respects, when one could argue looking at some of the policies coming out of Washington that the system doesn’t even care about these kids who are being left behind?

Putnam: Well, you know, I think part of it is I’m hoping that this year in the national presidential election people will agree that this opportunity gap is across party lines, will agree that it’s a big deal. And so far, that’s true.

Jeb Bush has said the opportunity gap is a central issue. Rand Paul has said that. Hilary Clinton has said that. That will not solve the problem, but it will create a national conversation about this problem which I think is the right problem to be focused on.

And that national conversation, I believe, as in the past in America, will give oxygen to local reformers in California or in New England or in the South to say, yes, that’s right. We’ve got this big national problem. Let’s begin doing something here in Orange County or here in Duluth or here in Atlanta to try to begin to narrow the opportunity gap.

Tavis: I know how acute this problem is that I want to identify for you. I know how acute this problem is in my own community, the African American community.

I know there’s also data that indicates that this is true in other pockets of the country as well, not just inside black America, which is the notion that we have finally arrived at a place in the country’s history where the generation of black kids that are coming up now will be the first generation to not do as well as their parents. How do we navigate forward?

And, again, I know that’s true in my own community, but there are other pockets of the country where we see the same things happening.

Putnam: Well, in the book, I do a number of case studies among Latinos and among blacks. We interviewed three–we spent some time describing…

Tavis: Some great graphs in here too, yeah.

Putnam: Three African American families in Atlanta. One, very successful, living in the suburbs and doing really well and their kids are going to turn out wonderfully.

Then a hardworking single mom who’s doing her best trying to keep her kids on the straight and narrow, but not entirely succeeding because she’s facing real challenges both in the neighborhood and in her own economic life.

And then finally, we talk about Elijah, a black kid who’s basically being raised on his own on the street and who grew up in the projects in New Orleans and who saw with his own eyes three kids get killed in front of him before he was five years old.

The opportunities open to the kids of those three different families are enormously different and I think we have got to think–all of us in the black community, but also in the rest of America–these are all our kids. And I’m not just making a moral point. I am making a moral point, but I’m also making a fundamental, economic point.

All of us will pay a price if we don’t bring these 25 million poor kids into the American dream because there are some smart kids there who could be making real contributions to American life, could invent new devices or medical things that would save lots of lives.

The cost to the American economy of not investing in these poor kids is estimated by economists over the course of their lifetime at $7 trillion.

So it’s not a matter of zero sum, you know, if your kid does well, then my kid’s not going to do well. It’s a matter that we’re all going to be better off if we treat all of our kids as if they–I mean, all kids–as if they were our own kids.

Tavis: I take your point and I couldn’t concur any more. And yet, there’s a part of me that always struggles, Professor Putnam, always wrestles with whether or not there has been a maligned neglect of some of this country’s children.

Putnam: Well, you know, there have been previous times in American history when we’ve been in pickles like this. About 100 years ago, there was a great gap between rich people and poor people in America around 1900.

It was called the Gilded Age and we had really, really rich people like the Rockefellers and then we had a lot of poor people living in tenements, in slums basically. And it felt a lot–and there was a sense of political corruption at that time, a sense of political gridlock. Nothing was happening.

But then in a fairly short period of time, Americans began to recognize what was happening. Partly it was because of just descriptions of the life on the other side of this gap, but the fact is, within the following 20 years, Americans made big social reforms that put us back on a more equal track.

Tavis: So what makes you hopeful at this point?

Putnam: Well, I am hopeful that at least now all the political candidates are talking about the problem. I’m optimistic mostly because we’ve done this in our own history. You know, I’m not trying to say let’s become like Sweden. I’m trying to say let’s become like America, the way we used to be in which we did actually think that we’re all in this together.

Tavis: The new book from Robert Putnam is called “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”. I highly recommend it. Professor Putnam, good to have you on this program, sir.

Putnam: Thank you very much, Tavis.

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Last modified: April 21, 2015 at 2:52 pm