Robert Putnam at the Royal Society of the Arts

Published Date: 
Thursday, 15 October 2015

Mary Sue is a young woman with a bleak future.

Her parents are from a declining industrial town in America’s Midwest, and never went to college. They split up when she was five years old. Her mother began working as a stripper to support the family, and her father repartnered with a woman who hit and starved Mary Sue. Now age 20, Mary Sue trusts no one, and feels that no one loves her. To get the affection that she craves, Mary Sue plans to become a mother, on the grounds that at least her baby will love her. 

 At a talk given by Robert Putnam, the political scientist and best-selling author of Bowling Alone, he revealed to the audience that Mary Sue has made one big mistake in her life: choosing the wrong parents. Had Mary Sue ‘chosen’ parents with a college education, Putnam explained, her future would look much brighter.  

Putnam was at the RSA to discuss the theme of his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, namely, the growing opportunity gap in the USA, and what can be done to close it.

He contrasted the case study of Mary Sue with one drawn from his own family. Putnam’s granddaughter Miriam is the child of a Harvard graduate. Currently enrolled in one of America’s best universities, Miriam spent the previous year studying abroad in France. As Putnam observed, the two women live in different universes, and the difference comes down to their parents and, particularly, their parents’ levels of wealth and education. 

Putnam’s address to the RSA highlighted that the American dream is in crisis due to growing inequality. While gains have been made in reducing racial discrimination and improving the role of women in society, America is facing a new form of class-based segregation due to growing income inequality. Rich and poor kids no longer attend the same school. Dumb, rich kids are almost as likely to get a college degree as poor, smart kids. While the top income earners spend up to $7000 a year on extracurricular activities for their children, that sum falls to $700 for the least privileged. Income inequality is not just a problem for the underclass. As Putnam pointed out, by failing to address the opportunity gap that inequality creates, we are throwing away our most talented kids. Despite the growing opportunity gap, Putnam was optimistic that it can be narrowed. As he noted, America in the late 19th century and early 20th century was a vastly unequal society where an underprivileged class of children served as labourers and went uneducated. However, a book that detailed these appalling conditions – How the Other Half Lives – shocked the community and became a tool of social reform. Putnam claimed that a greater understanding of American inequality led to the implementation of free public high schools throughout America, which improved the livelihoods of its citizens and generated economic growth. Praising the community endeavours that underpinned the high school movement, Putnam called for grassroots mobilization to ensure that quality, early childhood education is made available to all in an attempt to level the playing field. 

Putnam began his talk by wondering whether it would have relevance to the UK. The answer appears to be yes.

Government data reveals that only 36.3 per cent of children eligible for free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C.

For other pupils, that percentage climbs to 62.7. Bolstering Putnam’s argument that the wealth of our parents makes a difference to educational attainment is the finding that disadvantaged children underperform even if they attend an ‘outstanding’ school. With the OECD revealing that income inequality in the UK is growing, it is possible that this country too is throwing away its best and brightest kids.

 Whether Putnam’s solution is the right one is another question. Research shows that communities in which wealth was unequally distributed opposed the high school movement that Putnam referred to; whereas rich states led the movement. Given the great levels of inequality that exist today, is it plausible that communities will rally to a common cause? Instead of pursuing local solutions, would we be better off first tackling the factors that caused income inequality to emerge?