Robert D. Putnam, author of, ‘Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community’ and Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, spoke on Monday night the 3rd of March at Lesley University, at the first annual Paul A. Fideler Lecture. (The annual Paul A. Fideler Lecture makes it possible for Lesley University to honor his 45 years of service to the university. Professor Emeritus Fideler taught history and humanities-related courses prior to his retirement in 2014.)
Robert Putnam discussed the domestic challenge facing us today: “a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids.” Putnam, a political scientist, emphasized the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and made a compelling argument based upon his findings in the field. It is his belief that the equality of income versus the equality of opportunity have lead to a crisis of confidence concerning the American Dream, and furthermore a fundamental violation on the ideals of an American democracy.
Putnam’s overarching theory begins with the concept of a ladder, a perception of course that has been long perpetuated within American teachings. From a cultural standpoint the notion of starting at the bottom rung and climbing your way up is a nonsensical understanding, one that has long been geared towards the concept of every individual being created equal. Of course this assumption only regards the intrinsic structures that make up the individual, and fails to take into account the idea of birth lottery. As Putnam puts it, “children can come from the same town and the same background, but the fundamental choice of parents put them in different universes.”
Presumably then, with the dichotomy between a separation of equality having been stated, it is crucial to understand how this abstract conclusion has snowballed into what Putnam infers is a problem that affects all Americans.
The first way in which we have changed is through the concept of class segregation. Putnam ascertains that while Americans are connecting more individually they are now less likely to live next to someone of a different social class or education. This growing phenomenon has set a precedence for these two very different social classes. While one child may grow up with two involved parents, another may be raised by a single mom, the eventuality of course being that the second child is much less likely to have a stable family. In relevance to the growing gap, this leaves one undeserving child without a balanced environment, and lack of adult support.
Statistically speaking family income matters more now than the ability to complete college. Such evidence was brought forth with 74% of rich kids with high test scores completing college, whereas only 29% of poor kids with equally high test scores graduated.
This self-perpetuating attitude has inclined rich kids and poor kids to grow only further apart, with poor Americans feeling even more isolated from schools, churches, and neighbors. Putnam believes this drop in trust must in part be due to the collapse of a working family and the change in norms, such as men now finding it easier to walk away from their prodigy. It is through a frayed safety net, and comparatively the absence of sociological networks that has allowed for a, “shriveled sense of we.”
The underlying transformation our society has gone through then leads to lower economic growth, and as Putnam asserts, “we have become narrower and narrower.” So then, what can be done to change the fundamental cause that has allowed economic insecurity and class segregation to become an everyday attitude? Putnam believes, “the real solutions will come like all things do in America, through a national conversation.” Both democratic legitimacy and stability as well as economic growth are only possible through social and political mobilization. It is through ideas like investing in public education, and paying teachers more in high poverty schools that will lead to fundamental fairness.
As Putnam concludes, “this is not a problem to study, its a problem to understand and fix.”