American political scientist Robert Putnam says we've lost sight of America as the land of opportunity. NPR's Scott Simon talks with him about his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Statistics on the U.S. economy have improved in recent months, but does that mean more opportunity for our children? Does it mean the American dream is within their grasp? One of America's most respected political scientists is discouraged. Robert Putnam of Harvard has been called the most influential academic in the world by The Sunday Times of London. He has a new book called "Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis." It shows an America divided between those who can live in safety and security and a growing number in lower economic classes who have to live in fear for their jobs, their safety and their futures. Robert Putnam is probably best known for his best-seller, "Bowling Alone." He's received the National Humanities Medal among many other honors and has been consulted by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama as well as national leaders from Britain, Australia and France. He joins us now from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.
ROBERT PUTNAM: Thanks, Scott. It's great to be here.
SIMON: You start out this story with your own hometown. You grew up in the 1950s, Port Clinton, Ohio, which you think was a pretty good place to grow up. Why begin the story there?
PUTNAM: Well, I begin there for two reasons. One is I know the town well, and I know what it was like then. It was not, by any means, nirvana. There was racism in town and a glass ceiling for women, and there were other problems. But in social class terms, it was a pretty egalitarian place. And we know that not just because of the golden glow - my memories of my high school graduating class - but we've gone back now and interviewed all the surviving members of my graduating class. And we find they experienced - we experienced an extraordinary amount of upward mobility.
Eighty percent of us did better than our parents in educational and economic terms, and that reflected the American dream. That is everybody, whatever your family background, has a decent chance in life. But when I went back to Port Clinton just a few years ago, I discovered that, like the rest of America, even this little, tiny town in Ohio had changed beyond recognition, frankly.
SIMON: Underscore for us, if you could, the ways in which youngsters from - just to put it in bold terms - upper-class families and lower-income families differ in ways we might not realize at first. It's not just a matter of money; it's less of a lot of different things.
PUTNAM: Yeah, that's right. And I'm going to call them rich kids and poor kids, but by rich kids I don't mean Bill Gates' kids. I mean just kids coming from college-educated homes. And by poor kids, I don't mean the poorest of the poor, I don't mean homeless kids. I just mean kids whose parents did not get past high school. Among rich kids, only six or seven percent of them nationwide nowadays live in a single-parent family. But there's such instability in the families of poor kids that 60 to 70 percent of them - of all races - are living in single-parent families. And that means there's a ton more stress on their family and home than there is in the homes of well-off kids. And I don't mean just because of money, I'm talking about family dynamics.
SIMON: Well, let me understand. When you talk about family dynamics, this means fewer family dinners, this means a family that doesn't go to church or synagogue or mosque together.
PUTNAM: Yeah, and it shows up in a million ways. You'll have a larger vocabulary, you'll know more about the world, and you'll do better in life.
SIMON: Can you explain what you call the savvy gap in this day and age?
PUTNAM: Yeah. It's one of the things that we discovered when we talked to rich kids and poor kids around America, that we didn't expect - but kids, like my grandchildren and, like, you know, probably, like, your children or grandchildren, all across America have a lot of adults in their life that are reaching out to help them. They tell them about what it means to go to college.
PUTNAM: They describe, you know, how you can get through high school properly and where you can find a fellowship and - the bottom line of all of the statistics in our study is that poor kids are increasingly isolated from everyone. They just don't have stable, responsible adults in their lives much of the time. And that means they're just really ignorant. Not because they're stupid, but because they don't have mentors and adult helpers that most of us had when we were growing up.
SIMON: I have to step in for a moment, professor. Did you mean to call poor people ignorant?
PUTNAM: What I meant to say was that they were unaware of the opportunities and challenges around them. They lack savvy. They don't lack IQ, they lack savvy.
SIMON: Does the Internet, this powerful force in our lives, level some of these gaps or irritate them?
PUTNAM: All kids nowadays, rich and poor, have smartphones and access to the Internet, and that you might think levels the playing field. But kids coming from well-off homes tend to use the Internet in ways that are helpful to their upward mobility. They learn about jobs, and they learn about schools and so on. And poor kids tend to use it really much more for just entertainment. So the Internet, in effect, kind of mirrors the disadvantages poor kids have in the real world.
SIMON: Wasn't the hope that good public schools would somehow level the playing field of opportunity and make upward mobility possible?
PUTNAM: Yes, historically that's been the role from the very beginning. That's less true in America now. Rich kids are mostly now going to school with other rich kids, and poor kids are going to school with other poor kids. And that is putting a wedge in the ability that the schools have to narrow that gap.
SIMON: I was startled by - to read the words of a young woman named Mary Sue (ph) in your book who says, I'll quote it, "Love gets you hurt, trust gets you killed."
PUTNAM: Yeah. In her experience, she can't trust other people. That's not paranoia, that's real experience. And this shows up in national data. We see nationally that poor kids are much less likely to trust anybody.
SIMON: They can't. It makes them vulnerable.
PUTNAM: Exactly right.
SIMON: Yeah. You note at the end, Professor Putnam, that changing this isn't easy, which raises the question - can any government implement programs that make as much difference as an individual making good decisions about their lives?
PUTNAM: Well, I don't think this is so much a case in which we don't have any idea about what to do about it. I think it's a deeper cultural problem. When I was growing up in Port Clinton and my parents talked about doing things for our kids - when they said, you know, we've got to pay higher taxes so that our kids can have a swimming pool or a new French department or whatever - by the word, our kids, they did not mean my sister and me. They meant all the kids in town. And what's happened over the last 20, 30, 40 years is that our sense of what counts as our kids has shriveled. I think there are things we could do if we began to think of Mary Sue and counterparts across America as also part of our future. They are part of our future.
SIMON: Robert Putnam. His new book "Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis." Thanks so much for being with us.
PUTNAM: Thank you, Scott.