In “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), political scientist Robert Putnam illustrates the increasing inequality between rich and poor Americans over recent decades through empirical evidence and evocative narratives. On Monday, AEI hosted Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, and William Julius Wilson in a discussion moderated by Robert Doar to debate the implications of these trends for American children.
Putnam described evidence over the last 40 years that demonstrates a growing gap between the upper third of American society, those with a college degree, and the lower third, those with only a high school diploma. Due to 20th century trends in social capital, income inequality, political consensus, union membership, and share of wealth, America, as Putnam declared, has become “two separate societies.”
Is a change in public policy the solution to closing the opportunity gap? Murray declared, “A civic great awakening has about as much of a chance of working as policy.” Genes, shared environment, and non-shared environment are all significant factors in how our children develop; yet shared environment, Murray suggested, seems to be the least impactful. Although Wilson agreed with Putnam’s argument, he emphasized the importance of focusing on interracial income disparities. Wilson also strongly argued that it is unjust that a child’s race and parental income can predict his or her future.
Putnam, Murray, and Wilson concluded that the American Dream is, in fact, in crisis. However, the solution may call for more than a change in policy.
— Jane Brady Knight
In his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Robert Putnam describes an America that is increasingly separate and unequal along class lines: Children from wealthy families enjoy the benefits of stable two-parent families who invest heavily in their development, deep and positive social networks, and a knowledge economy. Poor and working-class kids, however, increasingly navigate broken families, the absence of adult role models, and an economy with fewer well-paying jobs for those with low levels of education. And more and more, the two groups don’t mix.
To what extent is this analysis of opportunity in America correct and cause for concern? What role do culture and public policy play in these trends? And how should individuals, community members, and policymakers respond?
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The American dream in crisis? A discussion with Robert Putnam and Charles Murray