When Dr. Robert Putnam walked the wide Bushnell stage from stage right to stage left, illustrating the divide between advantaged and disadvantaged children, at times he seemed about to burst into tears.  His latest book,Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, was the topic of discussion … and when Hartford Foundation for Public Giving President Linda Kelly introduced him with a promise for authentic dialog, she got it.

Dr. Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, spoke to how the American Dream is evaporating amidst the heat of income, education, and racial and class divisions.  While the uber wealthy are thriving, he said, middle class Americans haven’t gotten a raise in 30 years.  Moreover, fewer and fewer Americans are living in mixed neighborhoods; yet another one, the segregation gap, is growing.

Here are some of the other factors Dr. Putnam pointed out in his discussion of the opportunity gap that American families confront:

  • Different Worlds.  A decline in young people finding fiance(e)s from the other side of the tracks.  “We tend not to marry those we have not met,” he said jokingly.  Gaps are growing as the most extremely wealthy and the most destitute groups burgeon not just separated by race, but place.  “Where you live matters,” he remarked to an audience all too familiar with the differences between Connecticut’s cities and smaller towns.
  • Exploding at the Extremes.  Whereas the upper third of the population, with college degrees, tends to be rich, the lower third, which didn’t get past high school, decidedly is not.
  • One Parent Doing the Work of Both.  In 2012, more than two-thirds of American children whose mothers did not graduate high school lived at least some of the time with a single parent (the figure was 20 percent in 1953).  While he certainly does not blame the single mom, Dr. Putnam said, “It’s just really harder for them.”
  • Unbelievably Different Life Trajectories.  Whereas his own granddaughter “chose college-educated parents” and graduated from Haverford College and went on to study in France, another grandchild of a friend “chose working class parents,” he said, as though a newborn could choose.  The differences are stark.  The less advantaged young lady saw her parents split when she was five years old; her father hit her and refused to feed her; she spent time in “juvie”; and the best she could hope for was dating a guy with two infant children from a different mother.

The children’s opportunity gap represented here spans a range of experiences, from having the latitude to leave your job and have dinner with your kids to the wherewithal to afford extracurricular and summer enrichment activities (or, as Dr. Putnam insisted, “End pay to play!”)

Given the grim implications of this opportunity gap, Hartford, our State, and our nation ought to address the question why we have turned such a blind eye to the issues of our children’s futures.  Hearing Dr. Putman at the Bushnell, the message was clear:  If you are here, your kids will be fine.  Now, what can you do to help others?


Why Did HFPG Invite Dr. Robert Putnam?

“The invitation was about the work we are doing in 29 towns – already ongoing,” Elysa Gordon, senior adviser to Hartford Foundation for Public Giving President Linda Kelly, said in an interview this week.  “Just investing in programs and problem solving is not enough; we are looking to systemic investments to address disparities that are at best stagnant and at worst, growing.”

Segregated neighborhoods evince neither the collective empathy nor responsibility for addressing inequality, she added.  Hosting Dr. Putnam was a way “to bring together the community for a common understanding of the state of our disparities – and the factors contributing to the opportunity gap.”

Solutions to the problem are just as important as recognizing it, she emphasized, pointing to two documents that take solutions into account:

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving supports the construction of on ramps for reducing the opportunity gap (for example, its Career Pathways program) and works to sustain partnerships that promote student learning in the State’s highest-need Alliance Districts, of which Hartford is one.

“Each town in the region should think about each other; we all need to be concerned about opportunities for all,” Ms. Gordon emphasized.  “Success in any one place raises the boat for all.”

Here is a C-Span panel discussion, in which Dr. Putnam’s points about working families (and those of other notable researchers) are illuminated.


The Bottom Line.  School and housing segregation reflect economic segregation – and the work of Dr. Putnam puts the onus on everyone to boost jobs and income for low-income families, enhance early childhood education and development, encourage parents to be active partners in their children’s education, increase intensive mentoring of children, and widen access to higher education.  As he put it, it’s not a red-state/blue-state problem … it’s a purple problem.