Why you should care about other people’s kids

Editor’s Note: In the 1950s, Robert Putnam’s father was a small businessman in Port Clinton, Ohio, where Putnam grew up. The Harvard professor, of “Bowling Alone” fame, estimates that 40 percent of his classmates’ parents did not finish high school. So already, his father was a step above. But his peers weren’t doomed to their parents’ fate. Apart from the racism and homophobia that was all too common in the 1950s, the American Dream “sort of existed” in Port Clinton, Putnam argues in his new book, “Our Kids.” Eighty percent of his classmates, he says, exceeded their parents’ level of education, with about 50 percent of them graduating college.

Putnam, Robert.Our Kids

That kind of intergenerational social mobility no longer exists in Port Clinton. And this is not just a rust belt story. In Orange County, California, in Austin, Atlanta and Philadelphia, Putnam saw “split screens” — radically divergent trajectories for kids coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Social immobility is a topic we’ve long explored on Making Sen$e, investigating its connection to economic inequality in our series on “The Great Gatsby Curve.” Meanwhile, author Gregory Clark has argued on this page that your economic prosperity is an evolutionary result of the genetic cards you’re dealt.

But how could America have become so much more segregated by class in just a generation or two? Especially when, in the past 30 to 40 years, America has become more religiously and racially integrated?

Putnam’s new book, just published this week, is based on his study of his childhood hometown, and is the subject of Making Sen$e Thursday on the NewsHour. Watch the full report at the bottom of this post to see Paul Solman tour the town with Putnam and hear from some of Putnam’s classmates about how little economic differences mattered during their childhood.

For a deeper look at why that’s no longer the case today, read Paul’s extended conversation with Putnam, edited and condensed for clarity, below. Plus, learn how some Port Clinton residents are tackling the socioeconomic divide.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

RP: What we know has happened, nationwide and here in Port Clinton over the last 30 or 40 years, is that America has become a much more segregated society in social class terms. In religious and racial terms, we’re more integrated; we’re more likely to be living with people of a different race or religion; we’re more likely to go to school with people of a different race or religion; we’re more likely to marry people of a different race or religion. But in social class terms, economic terms, we’re less likely – much less likely now – to live near people of a different social class; we’re much less likely to go to school with people of a different social class; we’re less likely to bowl with people of a different social class; and we’re less likely to marry people of a different class.

And so America is silently but really importantly becoming increasingly segregated by how much you earn and how much education you have. Rich kids and poor kids are growing up in completely different worlds now.

PS: I remember in 1971, Richard Herrnstein in the psychology department at Harvard, wrote a piece in The Atlantic saying that this was going to happen. I think he called it “assortative mating.” He said that as we get further and further apart in terms of education, the educated will marry each other, and whether it’s genetic or just how they bring up their kids, it’s going to be more and more different from the people who are marrying each other at lower social class levels.

RP: That’s true, Paul, and in the course of this research I’ve thought a lot about those two possibilities. Is it the resources that the two people put together or is it the genes that the two people put together? And I’ve talked to a lot of geneticists and it’s perfectly clear that the degree of pulling apart that we have seen is way too big and way too fast to be explained by genetic evolution. There’s just not enough generations that have succeeded.

PS: But genetics could be a factor?

RP: Yeah, It could be a factor, but genetics is way too slow moving a process of sorting to account for the really rapid changes that we have seen over the past 30 years. It’s almost certainly not genetics. It’s the accumulation of actual resources: monetary resources, cultural resources, social resources, educational resources — and that pulling apart means that poor kids and rich kids, even of the same IQ, are living in completely different worlds now. That’s leading us down the road toward, frankly, a caste society.

PS: Aren’t there schools like Harvard out there scouting for the high IQ kids in the poor neighborhoods?

RP: Sure, but it’s not just about IQ. It’s about whether you have the capacity and have had the experiences, the education and training, and you have the grit and the determination to be able to make it through a really demanding college education.

PS: Or just the good habits.

RP: Yeah, good habits is an important part of it. We know now from the recent developments in brain science that the IQ of a person is determined in part by how often their parents read to them between [ages] zero and four.

My granddaughter, who’s now in college, got read to many times by her mom and her dad, and by my wife and me. And there’s a girl here in Port Clinton, same age as my daughter, who grew up in a completely different economic background than our grandchildren. She never got read to, and in fact was isolated, kept in her room alone with a yellow mouse most of her young life. And that young woman, whom we call Mary-Sue in the book, I’m certain has a lower IQ than my [granddaughter]. But it’s not because one’s the granddaughter of a Harvard professor and one’s not. It’s that one got lots of brain stimulation and the other didn’t. The recent brain science says that each time you read to your child, the child’s brain is actually developing. So lots of what we might think of as genetic actually isn’t – it’s really early experiences in life that are different, depending on whether your parents are coming from an upper class background or a lower class background.

PS: Sure, but Herrnstein’s point was that it could be genetic, it could be nurture, but that sort of mating is happening and it’s going to pose a huge inequality problem in this country.

RP: He’s right. And if it were just genetics, there might not be anything we could do about it. But if it’s partly just the resources that we’re investing in these kids, which is my thesis, that’s fixable in principle. That’s not like a law of genetics. My argument is basically we need to think of these kids coming from poor backgrounds and broken homes – they’re also our kids.

When I was growing up in Port Clinton 50 years ago, my parents talked about, “We’ve got to do things for our kids. We’ve got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a better swimming pool, or we’ve got to pay higher taxes so we can have a new French department in school,” or whatever. When they said that, they did not just mean my sister and me — it was all the kids here in town, of all sorts. But what’s happened, and this is sort of the bowling alone story, is that over this last 30, 40, 50 years, the meaning of “our kids” has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed so that now when people say, “We’ve got to do something for our kids,” they mean MY biological kids.

PS: Yeah, absolutely. Because parents and grandparents think, well, wait a second, in the days when it wasn’t so different, we didn’t worry, but now we want them on the bus, as opposed to off the bus.

RP: Yeah, but you see I don’t think it’s quite as zero sum as that. The evidence suggests that when in American history we’ve invested more in the education of less well-off kids, it’s been good for everybody. My grandchildren are going to pay a huge price in their adult life because there’s a bunch of other kids, in principle just as productive as them, who didn’t get investments from their family and community, and therefore are not productive citizens. The best economic estimates are that the costs to everybody, including my own grandchildren, of not investing in those “other people’s kids” are going to be very high.

PS: Why? And how high?

RP: Well, partly it’s because people on that lower trajectory are going to commit more crime. We’re going to have to spend more on prisons. If we have a lot of kids who don’t have any way to earn a living, it’s going to cost us more. The estimates are that the crime part, alone, will cut a little more than 1 percent off our GDP every year.

The second big cost is health. The kids who are down at the bottom — they’re increasingly likely to be obese. There’s no adolescent obesity epidemic in America, except among poor kids, and that means those poor kids are going to get more diabetes, have more heart disease and are going to be costing us a lot more.

The biggest of all of these is those kids are not going to be contributing productively to the economy of all of us. So let’s take the kid in the book named David. He has no useful skills because of his background, and therefore, is not going to be a productive member of the Port Clinton economy.

This additional cost that we’re paying because we’re not investing in these kids is not because they’re going to [go on] welfare. We could be as mean-hearted, as Scrooge-like as we want to and we’d still be paying on the order of magnitude of 3 to 4 percent a year because of the inadequacies of what we’re providing to these poor kids.

This is partly, of course, a matter of altruism. It’s just not fair that these kids don’t have a fair chance in life. They didn’t make any mistake. Their parents maybe made the mistakes. But it’s also self-interest. I don’t want my grandchildren to be having to work extra hard just to pay for investments that would have been a lot cheaper if we’d invested back when these kids were all young.

PS: But liberals like you make this argument about all kinds of things, like infrastructure or education: pay now or you’ll pay more later. Americans feel that they’re already paying enough in taxes and they don’t trust that those investments will be made efficiently enough.

RP: America’s best investment ever, in the whole history of our country, was to invest in the public high school and secondary school at the beginning of the 20th century. It dramatically raised the growth rate of America because it was a huge investment in human capital. The best economic analyses now say that investment in the public high schools in 1910 accounted for all of the growth of the American economy between then and about 1970. That huge investment paid off for everybody. Everybody in America had a higher income.

Now, some rich farmer could have said, “Well, why should I be paying for those other kids to go to high school? My kids are already off in Chicago and I don’t care about [other kids].” But most people in America didn’t. This was not something hatched in Washington – small town people got together and said, “Look, we ought to do this for our kids… We ought to have a high school so that every kid who grows up here — they’re all our kids — gets a good high school education.”

PS: But now American taxpayers look at the public education system and say that it’s not turning out productive workers, and so throwing more money at the problem is throwing more good money after bad.

RP: Americans like to blame everything on the public school system. K-12 is not the cause of the growing opportunity gap. It may not be doing enough to close the gap, but the causes of the gap lie outside the schools. They lie in families and in communities and in the rest of society, and we’re asking schools to narrow that gap… Actually, the best evidence suggests that we should be investing in really early childhood education, and that the earlier the better, because the evidence shows that there is a very high rate of return.

PS: I’ve heard this my entire reportorial career – that the earlier you invest, the better off we are, the higher the payoff. But we don’t do it.

RP: Early childhood education is an area in which some of the most interesting work is being done in the deepest red states, not in, you know, deep blue Massachusetts. Oklahoma, for example, has one of the best, maybe the best comprehensive early child education program. This investment is not yet seen as a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The notion that all of us have a shared interest in investing in our shared future, which is these kids, is not and has not historically been a partisan issue.

Watch Paul Solman’s segment with Putnam in Port Clinton below:

And watch Paul’s 2010 conversation with Putnam about his book “American Grace” about religiosity in the U.S.