The Social Science Behind Obama's Economic-Mobility Speech

Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, has been arguing since 2012 for one approach the president took yesterday.
Obama laughs with political scientist Robert Putnam before awarding him the 2012 National Humanities Medal during a ceremony at the White House on July 10, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In a speech Wednesday, President Obama sought to move past the old race-based discourse on poverty to an understanding of class stasis as a problem that transcends race. Though he's winning praise for strategic smarts, it's not just a political move: The underlying reality of American life really has changed, and certain socioeconomic experiences now transcend race, according to research from the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Here's the key passage from Obama's remarks on economic mobility Wednesday:

[T]here is the myth that this is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor—that this isn’t a broad-based problem, this is a black problem or a Hispanic problem or a Native American problem. Now, it’s true that the painful legacy of discrimination means that African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity—higher unemployment, higher poverty rates. It’s also true that women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. So we’re going to need strong application of antidiscrimination laws. We’re going to need immigration reform that grows the economy and takes people out of the shadows. We’re going to need targeted initiatives to close those gaps.

But here’s an important point. The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups: poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races. And as a consequence, some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility that were once attributed to the urban poor—that’s a particular problem for the inner city: single-parent households or drug abuse—it turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere. 

A new study shows that disparities in education, mental health, obesity, absent fathers, isolation from church, isolation from community groups—these gaps are now as much about growing up rich or poor as they are about anything else. The gap in test scores between poor kids and wealthy kids is now nearly twice what it is between white kids and black kids. Kids with working-class parents are 10 times likelier than kids with middle- or upper-class parents to go through a time when their parents have no income. So the fact is this: The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race, and that gap is growing.

So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.

That sounds a lot like research by Robert Putnam, the social scientist who gained fame in the 1990s for authoring the "bowling alone" theory of the decline in social bonds. I reported on Putnam's then-unpublished study of the transformation of American classes and the implications for social mobility after a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2012. (See his PowerPoint slides here.) There, Putnam urged the audience to get beyond talking about poverty and race and start thinking about social mobility and class instead:

"Those two conceptual moves, framing it as poverty and thinking about it as a matter of race, have a very deep history... and I think both politically and analytically that's an almost fatally flawed framework," said Putnam....

"You say poverty to most ordinary Americans, most ordinary voters, they think black ghettos," he continued, whereas over the last couple of generations "class, not race is the dominant -- and becoming more dominant -- dimension of difficulty here."

"Relatively speaking, racial differences controlling for class are decreasing while class differences controlling for race are increasing in America," he said. "Non-white folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education and white folks who haven't gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven't finished high school."

Sound familiar?

You can read more about Putnam's research in his August 2012 white paper "Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness among American Youth," co-authored with Carl B. Frederick and Kaisa Snellman.

Update: The White House confirms Obama was referring to the August 2012 Putnam, Frederick and Snellman study in his remarks.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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