If you grew up back in the 50s in Robert Putnam’s small Midwestern hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, you didn’t have to live on the "right side of the tracks" to achieve the "American Dream." But now, over half a century later, the side you live on in America is almost inextricably tied to your future prosperity. Putnam, a political scientist and Harvard professor of public policy, is best known for his 2000 book Bowling Alone, which warned about the consequences of America’s increasingly disconnected social fabric. Putnam’s research has since focused on exploring how the rich and poor live in his once-egalitarian hometown today. And as he details in a new book, his findings have surprised him: "Opportunity inequality," or the gap between the chances for success among children from high- and low-income homes, is much starker now than it was when Putnam grew up.

The new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, uses storytelling to show how the prospects for getting into a good school, marrying, and having a successful career have become further out of reach for children from low-income families. Putnam recently spoke with me about America’s ever-widening opportunity gap, how economic segregation in the country's neighborhoods exacerbates this inequality, and why everyone should be worried. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Hope Reese: What’s the "opportunity equality" gap you refer to?

Robert Putnam: Opportunity equality is the distribution of life chances among the next generation. Will kids from different families have a decent chance of making a living? Basically all of our kids ought to have a decent chance to do well in life, to succeed as far as their native talents and hard work will carry them, independent of whatever their parents did or didn’t do. But there’s been a large and rapidly growing gap in terms of life chances and opportunity among kids from different economic backgrounds.

Reese: How has this happened?

Putnam: This is a complicated problem that’s taken decades to develop; it’s kind of a perfect storm. There are a lot of things that’ve contributed to these growing gaps. Income inequality has been growing rapidly since the 70s. Initially, it was growing because the bottom was falling away from everybody else, and then in the 80s and 90s, the gap continued to widen because the top was pulling away from the middle and bottom. In this century, the very top has been pulling away from everybody.

The American working class has not had a real raise in 30 or 40 years. For a while, in terms of the individual family, that was offset by the fact that women were going to work, so even though men’s wages were stagnating and declining, the family income was held up by women. But then, in the lower-half of the income distribution, marriage itself began to fall apart—so the pooling of income that kept families afloat disappeared.

Reese: You write about how income inequality, and opportunity inequality, can be seen in America’s neighborhoods. How is this happening?

Putnam: They’re increasingly segregated by social class. Rich folks mostly live amongst rich folks and poor folks among poor folks. That’s not true for racial or religious segregation—we’ve become a more integrated society in those ways. We’re also less likely to go to school [with] or marry people from a different class background.

Reese: How does neighborhood segregation affect schooling?

Putnam: More and more rich kids are going to school with other rich kids. The environments in which rich and poor kids are being taught are very different. It’s not something schools have done, but the schools are where you can see this gap. The same thing is true with respect to all the community and mentoring relationships that are important to kids growing up—and were important a generation ago. It’s not just the parents of a child who helps them; it’s coaches and clergy people and neighbors and so on, all of whom are giving a hand to kids from poor backgrounds.

Reese: You’ve been studying class issues for years. Why is social class such an important issue to you?

Putnam: I grew up in a town that felt egalitarian, with lots of what I would learn later on was called "social capital." After I left, I thought I might be seeing things through rose-colored glasses—that I might be wrong about how egalitarian it was. But when we completed the survey of all of my surviving classmates, it turned out that [my original assumption] was basically true—it was a pretty equal place with a lot of community and family support. And when my team went back to Port Clinton for this research, we were shocked beyond belief by what had happened to this little town—how much inequality we saw, in terms of chances for success. It is much harder now to "make it" if you come from a lower-class background. This turned out to be a reflection of what’s happened nationwide. This one little town in middle America encapsulates trends that are happening everywhere, not just tiny towns hit by deindustrialization.  

I had been thinking of retiring, but as I began to learn more about this growing gap, I decided I just couldn’t afford not to write about this. It really is a fundamental challenge to core American values. It’s not just one change that’s going on. When America became independent, the first thing we said was "all men are created equal." Of course we didn’t mean all men, and we didn’t mean women, but that principle has remained at the absolute center of our national value system. The more I thought about it, and the more we talked to these kids, the more I came to think: "Gosh, this is something the whole country needs to pay attention to."

Reese: What do you think of the "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" stories? Is this a distortion of what’s actually happening?

Putnam: This narrative goes back to Horatio Alger in [the] 19th century. Of course, there are people who do [pull themselves up by their bootstraps], and even from my own high-school class I saw lots of examples of that. Those are real kids, and the data show a lot of kids rising from poor backgrounds. But that trope in our literature, evidence shows, is increasingly unrealistic.

Reese: How has the American Dream shifted?

Putnam: The nature of relations between genders and races has changed, for the good. I’m delighted that my daughter has just as many opportunities as my son, and of course we need to update things from the traditional model. But the idea that every child ought to have a decent chance—that ideal is exactly right. It’s what we ought to aspire to. The reality has diverged from that, and we need to institute policies to try to restore equality of opportunity across America and to close the opportunity gap.

Reese: How are social-mobility indicators out of date?

Putnam: Social scientists compare someone’s income when they’re around 40 years old with their own parents’ income when the parents were 40. If a child has a higher income than their parents, that’s upward mobility, and if they have a lower, it’s downward mobility. The question is: Why do we wait until a kid is 40 until we measure mobility? People’s incomes at earlier ages can often be quite misleading in terms of what their lifetime income will be. My son went to Harvard Law School and got a job as a lawyer in New York when he was 25, and his income was almost one-tenth of mine. He was still in school, and I had a decent income. But by the time he was 40, his income was ten times mine. That means that we basically have to wait until a given generation of kids is in their 30s or 40s before we can see whether things are going up or down. In that sense, using conventional measures, we’re always looking in the rear-view mirror. The very latest studies refer to kids who were born and grew up 30 years ago. The kids in my book won’t appear in those studies for another 20 years! So we won’t really know, using conventional measures, whether mobility is going up or down. It’s a little like global warming—we don’t have the perfect measures, but if we wait until we’re sure it’s happened, it’s going to be too late to do anything about it.

Reese: One shift you highlight in your book is how different parenting is today than what is was like 50 years ago. What are you seeing here?

Putnam: If you’ve got the time and money, you’re investing huge amounts more time and energy in grooming kids now than in the 50s. Today, If you’re well-educated, you’re more aware of the need to do that than you were in the past. There’s a kind of arms race going on. You’ll think: "We’ve got to arrange for Susie to go to France this summer so she can write a nice college essay about it" or "wouldn’t it be great if she had piano lessons!" And you want to make sure Susie, rather than Nancy next door, gets into Harvard. So you and Nancy’s parents are engaged in a very genteel little arms race about whether Susie’s going to get into Harvard. Meanwhile, the arms race is pulling both Susie parents and Nancy’s parents far ahead of the other parents on the other side of town who can’t begin to keep up. My own children certainly spent a lot more time raising their kids than I did raising them.

Reese: Your book is called Our Kids, which refers to the idea of looking after each other’s kids—something you experienced when you were growing up. Did raising kids used to be more of a collective enterprise?

Putnam: Yes. People paid attention to other people’s kids. That’s what we’re doing less of now. We’ve privatized raising kids, and that has had really bad effects on [those] lower down in the hierarchy. One example is by pay-to-play policies. If you want to pay football, your parents will have to pay for that—which is very unlike all American high schools from the beginning of the 20th century up to 20 years ago. Everybody in town used to be able to play on the football team. But now, the privatization means that poor parents are going to be less able to do that than rich parents. We also know that reading to your children is immensely important for brain development. It’s being done less by poor parents than rich parents. It’s partly because they’re just having to work harder, and partly because they’re less aware of the need to do that.

Reese: Do Americans need to think of these kids as "our kids" instead of just taking care of their own?

Putnam: We all need to be responsible for other people’s kids, and not just out of altruism. We know that if we don’t help these poor kids have a chance to succeed economically, the whole country will be worse off. My grandchildren will be worse off if we don’t invest in other people’s kids. The GDP will be lower, [they’ll have] higher health bills, kids will get sicker earlier, and the costs of the criminal-justice system will skyrocket.

I’m not saying we should try to become kind of Swedish social-democratic state. This is just going back to basic American values: worrying about everybody’s kids. Let’s get off this recent kick of just worrying about our own.