Political scientist Robert Putnam grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio. Putnam used his hometown as a case study for growing American inequality.

Credit: "Downtown Port Clinton from the air" by Nyttend - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Robert Putnam On US Inequality: 'Kids Are Living In Two Universes'

April 3, 2015

Robert Putnam became a household name with this 1995 book Bowling AlonePutnam posited that Americans' social lives had withered from a mid-century high to something completely different in the late 1990s. Instead of joining leagues, teams and social groups, people began leading insular home lives. Putnam's new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is an examination of growing American inequality.

Robert Putnam's responses are edited where noted [...], and questions are paraphrased.

In the book you returned to your hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio, to see how it's changed over the years.

We interviewed all the people that I graduated from high school with, all of us who are still living. We experienced extraordinary upward mobility actually. Eighty percent of us had done better than our parents had done, in educational and economic terms. [...]

The kids in Port Clinton now [...] are in awful shape. The families are very unstable families. The kids are basically fending for themselves. And nobody in town is looking after them.

Meanwhile, however, on the shore of the lake, what's grown up is like a gated community [...] with million-dollar mansions. So, if you go to Port Clinton high school now and look at the parking lot, some kids drive BMW convertibles, [...] and other kids are in jalopies, junkers, that they live in.

Their lives, the lives of these two different Port Clintons, basically, [...] are just unbelievably different. That town captures what's happened to America.

[Now we're also] interviewing one family from Weston, on that side of 128, and one family from Waltham from this side of 128. The kids — they're living in two universes.

And we see discrepancies based on money, time spent with children, those kinds of indicators?

Rich families can afford more piano lessons and summer camp, and so on. And poorer families can't. What we call 'Goodnight Moon' time — the amount of time you spend just reading to children — there's now a 45-minute gap in the amount of time. Didn't used to be any gap at all between working class and upper class and the amount of time they spend with their kids. Now it's grown to 45 minutes a day. [...]

These poor kids are isolated from everybody. From family, because of the family instability. From schools, from churches, because working class kids are dropping out of churches. From community organizations. And they are really, deeply distrustful of their environment.

This is about racial segregation too, right?

We're less likely to marry people from a different social-class. That social segregation, alongside the economic polarization, has meant we're moving towards two different societies.

It's not just the inequality of income. There's increasing segregation. We're a less-segregated society in racial terms, we're a less-segregated society in religious terms, but we're a more-segregated society in economic terms. We're less likely to live near people who have different education or income levels, kids are less likely to go to school with kids from a different economic background. We're less likely to marry people from a different social-class background. That social segregation, alongside the economic polarization, has meant that we're moving towards two different societies.

Can we get at some of the root causes of this?

We're spending time — entertainment and so on — in more isolated ways. It partly has to do with the change in culture. Our country goes through these huge swings from being concerned about community to being extremely individualistic. [We're] coming toward the end of probably the biggest swing toward individualism and focus on our self in our national history. I'm hoping that that pendulum will start swinging back.

How realistic is it that we'll switch back, though?

As a country we've done this before in the last Gilded Age in America — which was around 1890 to 1910 — [which] was very much like our period. Big gap between rich and poor, lots of degradation in the cities. [Jacob Riis] wrote a book about "how the other half lives." It was holding up a mirror to the Lower East Side, these tenements in the Lower East Side, and saying to the Upper East Side, the "silk stocking" districts, Do you want to live in a country in which there are other people in your country living like that?

In a way, what I'm trying to do with this book is to hold up a mirror to the way poorer kids are living in America, saying to rich Americans, Do you want to live in a country like that? Americans have historically responded to those kinds of injustices.

>> To hear the entire interview with Robert Putnam, click the audio link above. Robert Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids. Putnam is a professor of public policy at Harvard Univerity's John F. Kennedy School of Government.


WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top