Harvard’s Putnam sees Primary as way to shine spotlight on “opportunity gap”

Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2015
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wants people to put down his new book and go help community youths.

This would be a small, if symbolic, step toward closing the “opportunity gap” that exists between rich kids and poor kids in America, Putnam said. This gap has widened over the last 30 years for a variety of related reasons, coinciding with the deterioration of support systems in the lives of poor children.

So, even small actions such as mentoring or coaching could have a profound effect on a young person who needs that support.

“The most uniform characteristic of poor kids now is they are utterly alone,” Putnam said yesterday in an interview with the Monitor editorial board. “All of the institutions that used to provide care and support – family, school churches, community institutions – all of those have disappeared from the lives of poor kids.”

One of the major goals of his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is to shine the national spotlight on the issue.

“My aspiration would be that in every house party for a candidate across New Hampshire somebody says to the candidate, ‘What do you think about the opportunity gap?’ ” Putnam said. “We’re making progress on that.”

His new book explores the gap that exists between the children of rich and poor parents. The book’s basic argument is that, over the past 30 years, the space between the two has widened and continues to grow.

Putnam’s outlook was shaped by his own middle-class upbringing in Port Clinton, Ohio, where at the time he saw ability and effort as the only two constraints on opportunity. This idea of equal access to opportunity has eroded to the point where the American Dream is in crisis, he said.

The factors that caused this erosion are related, he said.

One of the biggest is the growing income gap between parents and the consequences this gap has on children. Social class segregation has also played a role, as research suggests people are more likely to live near, marry or go to school with someone from a similar social class, he said. Differences in time and resources invested in early childhood education, family structure and uneven access to community safety nets all play a role in limiting access to opportunity for poorer children.

There aren’t any quick fixes, Putnam said. Recognizing the problem and looking at causes and potential solutions are the first step.

“We could figure out how to make sure this long-standing economic wage stagnation among working class America ends, and have a boost to the economic prospects for low income workers” he said. “I don’t know for sure how to do that, but it’s a big thing and it won’t happen overnight.”

Higher-quality early childhood education and paying more to teachers working in high-poverty schools would help close the gap, he said.

“Equalizing input is not enough, you need to equalize output,” he said.

These are wide-ranging solutions, but there are simpler ones that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Mentor, volunteer or approach the school board, ask for ways to get involved with helping children in town, he said.

“Not investing in these kids is more costly than investing in them,” he said. “Ignoring those costs does not make them go away.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm).