by Joe Shea
May 23, 2012
A NEW FORM OF ENERGY - AND A NEW WORLD
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. --The issue of income inequality in the United States may be receiving more attention with the rise of the Occupy movement and ongoing Congressional hearins, but Harvard professor and best-selling author Robert Putnam believes that most Americans are unconcerned about it.
"Americans don't have the vocabulary to talk about class," said Putnam, "Historically, most Americans don't care about inequality of wealth and income. But Americans are quite concerned about social mobility and equality of opportunity."
And, over the past 30 years, a pattern is developing. Putnam sees what he calls "a catastrophic gap" when it comes to social mobility. And it is getting worse with each passing year. There are fewer opportunities for lower-income Americans to move up the economic ladder. Putnam calls this "one of the most urgent moral issues facing the United States."
As some one who has chronicled the decline in social capital - the social relationships and civic engagement that once were stronger in our nation - for the last 20 years, Putnam has a lot of credibility. His 1996 book, "Bowling Alone," was a seminal book in the field.
Now, the Professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government is turning his research toward the growing inequality of opportunity gap in the United States.
I had a chance to listen to Putnam during the Kennedy School's annual alumni weekend, where he presented some of his preliminary research on the subject. What he had to say is frightening to anyone who is worried about the future of our nation.
It had been an article of faith for most of the 20th Century that each successive generation of Americans will do better than the previous one. But since the early 1980s, the trends in social, cultural, and material resources show a sharp divergence between working-class families and middle- to upper-middle-class families.
He found that working-class kids have become increasingly isolated from social institutions, are less connected with other people, and are doing less well in school.
"How you do in America more and more comes down to how well you choose your parents," he said. "And that is not fair."
In trying to explain these concepts to then-President George W. Bush in the mid-2000s, Putnam remembers a observation by then-First Lady Laura Bush: "If you know how long you're going to keep your house, or your job, you have less energy to invest in your kids,"
And the institutions that used to fill the gaps - recreation departments, church groups, fraternal organizations - are not as robust as they used to be.
"Middle class families can buy alternatives to the things that used to be provided by government and civil society," said Putnam. "Working class families don't have that luxury."
This, Putnam said, leads to a growing sense of isolation and mistrust among children from lower-income families. His preliminary data finds that lower-income children participate less in after-school activities, they go to church less frequently, and are less likely to get involved with organizations such as Scouting.
"Working class kids, over last 20 years or so, have become more and more isolated from all major social institutions," Putnam said. "And these kids know that they are being ignored by society. They know that they have been left entirely on their own, and that's a serious, serious problem."
That's why Putnam believes the frame being used to discuss economic inequality, the 99 percent versus the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, is totally accurate.
"This gap is happening in the 99 percent," he said. "And since economic inequality is such a hard sell to many Americans, it needs to be framed in a different way."
And the different way is focusing on children, the widening gap in achievement by social class, and the growing realization that the American dream of children doing better than their parents is fading fast.
The main takeaway from Putnam's talk was that we are now two Americas, separate and unequal. There is the America that is financially secure and has access to good education, and the America that finds itself shut out of the game.
Education remains the chief determinant for how well someone does in life. Right now, the unemployment rate for an adult with a college degree is about 5 percent, while adults without a high school diploma have a 15 percent unemployment rate.
The adult with the college degree usually has income that is steady or rising, a lower rate of divorce, and has fewer children out of wedlock. Exactly the opposite is true for the high school dropout.
In short, there are three factors that determine whether someone is consigned to a lifetime of poverty. According to Brookings Institution economists Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, if a young person graduates from high school, gets a job, and gets married and waits until after age 21 to have children, they have a nearly 75 percent chance at making it into the middle class.
Yet today, a child born into poverty in Britain, Canada, France, or Germany has a better chance at moving up the economic ladder than a child in the United States. According to Haskins and Sawhill, more than two-thirds of U.S. children born into low income households grow up to earn a below-average income, while only 6 percent make into the top 20 percent of income earners.
So how do you solve the problem? By doing the things that we haven't been doing for the past three decades, such as increasing funds for education and public services, and promoting policies that rebuild social capital.
Putnam believes it is unlikely that inequality of opportunity will become a campaign issue in November's election. But the issue should be on every Americans radar. A nation that finds itself more and more class-bound, with less and less social mobility, is a nation that is in deep, deep trouble.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.