In Today’s Conversation with Leith Anderson, Robert Putnam shares his research and stories showing the growing class gap among kids in the United States and offers ideas for how we can address the disparity.

In this podcast, you’ll hear from a renowned social science researcher on:

  • The experiences of young people growing up in different economic classes;
  • Statistics and trends explaining a growing economic gap among Americans; and
  • How churches can be involved in caring for all of our kids.

Read a Portion of the Transcript

Leith: Professor, America is abuzz over your new book, “Our Kids.” And I’ve got to tell you, I’m amazed at how many people I talk to who have already read it. In it, you claim that there is a large and growing class divide in our nation that’s more than money and more than race. So, what are these classes? And what’s happening here?

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Robert: Well, what’s happening, is in the bigger picture is that there is of course — this is widely known — a growing inequality and income distribution. People who are less affluent and less well educated have not really had a raise for almost 30 years. So there is a growing income gap, and as I say that’s been widely discussed. Our society has become more segregated by social class, by education and income. People are more likely to live near people of a different race or a different religion, are more likely to have friends or to even marry people from a different race or a different religion. But in social class terms, in terms of education and income, we’re less likely to live near people who have a different income or educational level than we used to. Our kids are less likely to go to school with kids from a different social background. And we’re even less likely to marry someone from a different class or background. So in that sense our society has become more and more polarized into really two different societies: an affluent society of college educated Americans who are doing pretty well — I’m not talking just about the ultra rich, I’m talking about people basically in the upper third of American society, which amounts to people who have a college education — and a growing gap I should say between them and the lower third of American society — people who have not gotten past high school, they may have a high school degree but they have not gotten past high school. And that gap, that divide, that really serious divide between those two Americas is I think causing grave problems especially for kids. That — as you know ­­— is what the book is focused on, which is what difference does all this make for our kids.

Leith: Do these classes know about each other? I know generally they know about each other, but are they aware of how different their lives are?

Robert: No. I think that’s one reason I wrote the book actually, Leith. Because I think, you know when I was growing up in the 50s — or even more recently than that — lots of people knew people from the other side of the tracks. I mean, I grew up in a small town, and I describe this a little in “Bowling Alone,” my hometown was a small town. And there were, of course, some people in town better off than others, but we all played on the same teams. And we all went to the same school. And we dated, and many of us went to church together. So there wasn’t such a big class divide, and we knew about the lives that other people led. That’s less true now — much less true. And therefore, lots of people of goodwill who are on the upper side of what I call the opportunity gap — that is people from college educated backgrounds — simply are unaware of how bad things have gotten down in the lower third of American society. That’s why there are so many stories in my book of kids from what I call rich kids and poor kids. I have lots of stories, because I want to say to readers of the book who are likely to be themselves pretty well educated, I want to say: Do you know how bad things have gotten down there in the bottom part of our society? Do you really want to live in an America in which there are kids growing up in that kind of desolation?

Leith: I want to comment on some of those stories. So, I have a degree in sociology, and I’m just fascinated by the graphs in your book. You have these fascinating scissors graphs that show the divergence of class-based children’s experiences. So tell us, what are those graphs all about? There’s such similarity in the two or more different lines among all these graphs, so that… well, what do they reveal about our society?

Robert: They show how that impinges on, how that affects kids. And the answer is that it affects them terrifically, and for the worse. So for example, take family stability. We know that family stability is really important. And among college educated Americans now, the vast majority of kids growing up in college educated homes — more affluent homes — the vast majority of them are growing up in two parent families — mostly with their two biological parents. About 92 percent of those kids have two parents in their family, but kids on the bottom side of the opportunity gap — that is kids coming from high school educated homes — two thirds of them have only a single parent. And by the way, I’m talking about kids of all races. This is not a matter of race; it’s a matter of social class. So that means, one part of this growing gap — the scissors graph shows this growing gap — between, you know, actually people coming from the kind of background that my grandchildren are coming from, that is, they are mostly increasingly having two parents. Whereas, on the other side of the scissors graph — the graph for kids coming from the lower third — they are less and less likely to be living in families with two parents. You see the same growing divergence in terms of how much money parents are spending on their kids for things like summer camp and piano lessons and soccer practice and trips to Europe and computers and so on. Monies that nowadays kids in the upper part of the class hierarchy get about $7,000 a year from their parents. I don’t mean in dollars but in summer camps and so on — as opposed to not even $1,000 a year for poor kids. Similarly in terms of the amount of time and what we call the Goodnight Moon gap, kids growing up in comfortable, affluent homes are very likely to get many more hours a week with their parents, interacting with them, reading to them, going to the zoo or whatever. And we know that’s really important for brain development. There’s a growing gap in the quality of schools kids go to. Increasingly upper class kids are going to school with other upper class kids, and lower class kids are going to less effective schools, low income schools. There’s a growing gap in the amount of mentoring that kids get from their communities. And one of the ways that shows up is a growing gap in youth church attendance. Church attendance is down for all American youth, and that’s been long noted over the last 20 years or so — a decline in youth attendance in church. But that graph, that decline in church attendance among America’s young is concentrated among working class kids, not middle class kids. So there again, these working class kids are more isolated — of all races. I want to make clear, there may be some theological consequences of the fact that they’re not in church. But I’m especially concerned because we know that churches are a rich source of social support for kids. Religious communities are really good at reaching out to help other people. But if the poor kids are simply not there, then again, they are isolated. And that’s another one of these scissors graphs.

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