Around the Institute

Robert Putnam on Why We Need to Invest in America’s Poor Kids

April 7, 2015

Above, watch the full discussion with Harvard University professor Robert Putnam.

The widening socioeconomic gap between the haves and the have-nots has been one of the most pressing issues facing America for years. But for those who think that the divergence can’t get much worse, political scientist and Harvard University public policy professor Robert Putnam — who has studied the issue — disagrees.

“We ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Putnam, “unless we begin to address this problem.”

Putnam discussed his new book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson as part of the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book series.

“We’ve become a more socially polarized place, a more economically polarized place…I wanted to look at what are the implications of those changes for our kids, for children in America,” Putnam said.

To illustrate the growing gap between the top socioeconomic third and the lower third of the American population, Putnam described what he calls the “scissor graphs” in the clip below. The graphs provide a visual representation of the opportunity gap between rich and poor kids in factors such as family stability, support from community institutions including schools and churches, and even the time parents spend reading to children.

“We used to take care of everyone’s kids”

According to Putnam, one of the main reasons for the widening gap is the changing, more limited, definition of the term “our kids.” Back in the 1950s, in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, as well as in other American cities, Putnam described a time considered the welfare of the children in their community in addition to that of their own children. This inclusion of children in the community prompted behavior such as paying taxes for the local swimming pool, and was evidenced by school districts providing free sports teams for students in public school. In recent years, Putnam said, the term”our kids” has come to mean parents’ own biological children.

Because of the “our kids” mentality of the 1950s, children in America had more opportunities to succeed, including Putnam’s former classmate Cheryl.

“[One of] the most remarkable turning points in [Cheryl’s] life was when the wife of one of the CEOs in town for whom Cheryl cleaned recognized that Cheryl was a hard-worker and that she was smart. And this woman asked Cheryl one day, ‘Are you going to college?’ And Cheryl said, ‘No. No one in my family can imagine my going to college.’ And the matron said, ‘Well, surely the school is…going to help you get to college.’ And Cheryl said, ‘No, that doesn’t look like that’s happening.’…And [the wife] put on her fur coat and put on her fur hat, and she marched into the high school, and she pounded on the desk and said, ‘This girl is smart. You better get her to college!’ And that’s why [Cheryl] went to college.”

However, in the context of today, it is increasingly rare to find people like the matron in Cheryl’s story as few people are willing to care for children that are not their own. “When we use the word[s] ‘our kids,’ we now have a shriveled sense of what counts as our kids,” said Putnam.

Investing in poor kids a “positive sum game”

To make a more egalitarian America, Putnam says it is crucial to invest in our nation’s poor kids, a solution that is not novel. But for people who are reluctant to invest in poor children because they see it as a give-and-take deal, Putnam argues that doing so  is actually a “positive sum game.”

“This is not altruism,” Putnam said. “The whole country would be better off economically, politically, socially, and morally if we could begin to invest more in these kids.”

From the economic perspective, Putnam states that “not investing in poor kids costs us about 4 percent of GDP a year.” He also adds that by not investing, “we are writing off 23 million potential workers every year.” Watch the video clip below to see Putnam explain the benefits of investing in the lives of poor children.

But even without the benefits, Putnam argues that investing in poor youth is part of America’s moral creed: “[Not investing] just isn’t right.”

According to Putnam, the only differences between a poor child and a rich child are who their parents are and what resources the parents can provide. Not helping children who had no say in what family they were placed in is “fundamentally wrong [and] morally wrong.”

“Is that what America stands for?” asked Isaacson. 

“No, it isn’t.”