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.