USC Price School of Public Policy

USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation:

Putnam describes ‘opportunity gap’ between rich, poor at Price Center talk

May 1, 2015

By Matthew Kredell

Social scientist Robert Putnam shares insights from his  best-selling book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. (All photos by Deirdre Flanagan)

Social scientist Robert Putnam shares insights from his
best-selling book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
(All photos by Deirdre Flanagan)
More photos available on Flickr

Robert Putnam, right, with Gary Painter, director of social policy at the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation

Robert Putnam, right, with Gary Painter, director of social policy at the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation

Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University

Putnam is professor of public policy at Harvard University.

Putnam signs copies of his book.

Putnam signs copies of his book.

Social scientist Robert Putnam called a growing opportunity gap among children in the United States the central issue that college students will have to deal with in their lifetimes during an April 23 lecture hosted by the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, housed in the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, gave examples of the consequences of segregated social classes from his best-selling book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

“Americans don’t care much about wealth inequality,” Putnam said. “But what they do care about is that everybody gets a fair shot and starts on the same rung of the ladder. It’s paramount to the American dream.”

Gary Painter, the director of social policy at the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, noted that the center has “a community of scholars that develop ideas and solutions to the challenges that our urban communities face. We are pleased to have Professor Putnam discussing his path-breaking work on the opportunity gap that exists in our communities.”

Putnam presented that there are fewer mixed-income neighborhoods than there were 50 years ago, and as a result children are less likely to go to school with people of a different social class.

As an example, he compared Troy High School in Fullerton and Santa Ana High School, institutions about 10 miles apart in Orange County. According to Putnam, both have the same dollars spent per student, an equal student-faculty ratio and teachers with a similar level of training, and yet he said Troy measures out to be the far superior school — and the reason comes down to who else is going there.

“Whatever your own family’s income, if you go to school with rich kids you’re going to be better off and if you go to school with poor kids you’re going to be worse off,” Putnam said.

The trend carries on to college, where family income is now a stronger factor for graduation rates than a student’s test scores. Only 29 percent of low-income students who enter college with the highest test scores graduate, compared to 30 percent of the high-income students with the lowest test scores and 74 percent of high-income kids with high test scores.

Putnam identified causes of the opportunity gap as the collapse of the working class family, a substantial increase in single-parent homes among the poor, economic insecurity among working class people, an arms race among wealthy parents to get their kids into a great college leaving poor kids behind, and a cultural change of people no longer looking out for other people’s kids in a way that happened in the past.

He made sure to point out that this is not a story about race, as the growing income gap is true among all races.

He argued that schools and teachers played no role in exacerbating the opportunity gap, and he said evidence indicates that most charter schools have not been shown to narrow the gap.

“Charter schools in general tip toward helping affluent kids more because their parents are more likely to know where the best schools are and how to get to them,” Putnam said.

To improve the condition, he suggested efforts be made from a policy standpoint to encourage stable, caring families; boost jobs and wages for low-income workers; reform the criminal justice system; improve early childhood education; invest in public education and end pay-to-play for after-school activities; pay teachers more in high-poverty schools; and provide more intensive mentoring of kids.

“I think the main obstacle to doing something about this is not policy,” Putnam said. “The real problem is: Are we going to put together the political will to solve this problem? Will we agree as a country that this is a big deal?”

He is optimistic that the early candidates running for U.S. President in 2016 have been mentioning a need to fix the opportunity gap. He sees a national conversation as providing motivation for local reformers around the country.

Putnam expressed that narrowing the opportunity gap would be helpful to the population at large. He cited an estimate that the long-term cost of not helping the 25 million poor kids in the United States is $7 trillion, with much of it coming from increased costs of the criminal justice and health systems.

“These poor kids are going to get sick earlier, longer and more seriously all their lives, and the rest of us are going to have to pay for that,” Putnam said. “Even more importantly, we’re losing their potential contributions to the American economy. Think of all the smart poor kids who are not going to school. Many of them if we were able to get them through college would be inventors of really neat devices. They would raise the standard of living for everyone in America.”