Interview with Robert Putnam, Author of "Our Kids"

By LARB AVMay 15, 2015

Interview with Robert Putnam, Author of "Our Kids"
We interviewed over a dozen writers, artists and social activists at the 2015 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Check out our interviews with Tavis SmileyCynthia Bondand Karen Bender, and stay tuned for upcoming interviews with Mallory Ortberg, Issa Rae, John Scalzi, Heidi Julavits, Rashad Robinson, Octavia Spencer, and many more.

JERRY GORIN: The jumping-off point for the book is a study of your own background, right?

ROBERT PUTNAM: Sure. The book is about the growing gap between rich kids and poor kids, and I thought it’d be useful to set that in some place and watch how that place changes over time. So, the story of the book begins in my hometown, which is called Port Clinton, Ohio. It’s a small town on Lake Erie, in northern Ohio. I grew up there in the 1950s, and I graduated from high school in 1959. We’ve tracked down all of my high school classmates. We know a lot, not just from my golden-glow memories but from the facts of what life was like growing up in Port Clinton in the ’50s. There were no very rich people in town and no very poor people. It was kind of Lake Wobegon on Lake Erie.

The kids who came out of the class of 1959 had enormous upward mobility; 80 percent of us ended up doing better than our parents had done. The kids from the wrong side of the tracks were just as likely to make progress economically as the kids from the right side of the tracks. So, it was kind of an embodiment of the American Dream. Of course, it was the ’50s; it was mostly a white town so there was racism in town, and there was a glass ceiling for the women in my class. I don’t want to say it was a perfect place, but in terms of social class how far you got in life didn’t depend on your parents or your parents’ income.

If you go back to Port Clinton now, the place is extremely different. It’s divided into two different parts: the main part of town which is kind of in a rough spell — with old crumbling factories, and the kids who grew up there are living in deep poverty — but just on the other side of the road along the shore of Lake Erie there’s a 20-mile-long gated community with million-dollar homes. Those kids are growing up and going to the same high school, but they have an incredibly different future ahead of them because their parents are able to spend more money on them, spend more time with them. Whereas, the kids on the other side of the tracks are very likely to be growing up in poor, single-parent households, and honestly they’re living an unspeakably lonely life because the kids don’t have any adults in their lives, even their parents who are stable and responsible. That means that in Port Clinton you can see this rapidly growing gap between rich folks and poor folks who live on other sides of town; between rich kids and poor kids. The rich kids are dressed for success, but unlike when I was growing up in Port Clinton, the poor kids are on a downward track. First of all, that’s bad for the country, but secondly, it’s just unfair.

As a younger person, I’m always hearing about how much better it was back in the day. What exactly changed?

Well, there were three big things that changed. First of all, there was a growing income gap nationally. Over the last 30 or 40 years, people in the upper end of the income distribution have gotten richer and richer. Meanwhile, the people at the bottom half of the income distribution, the working class in Port Clinton, have not had a real increase in wages for more than 50 years. So, their past and current lives have been constricted by this income gap.

The second thing is somewhat different and is actually equally important, and it is that we are a more class-segregated society now than we were 50 years ago. We’re not more segregated in every way. We’re less segregated as a society in religious terms. It is also true for race: we’re more likely now to live near people or go to school with people or marry people from a different race. In social-class terms, we’re more segregated. Rich folks live in one part of town — that didn’t used to be the case — and poor folks live in another part of town. That dividing line you can see in microcosm in Port Clinton, but it’s true all over. It’s true is Los Angeles, it’s true in Orange County, it’s true in Philadelphia, it’s true in Duluth, Minnesota, it’s true in Austin, Texas. We are living in different communities; our kids go to different schools. People with a college-educated background are more likely to be going to school with other people that come from college-educated homes. Conversely, kids who are coming from high school homes or less than high school homes, the lower third of the income hierarchy, are now going to school with exclusively working-class kids.

So there’s that division, but we’re also less likely to marry from a different social background because when you’re in your twenties or thirties you’re less likely to meet people from the other side of the tracks. That means that America is more segregated and fractured into people who are relatively well off and people who are not well off. That applies to all aspects of our lives: who we hang out with, who we share jokes with, who we go out with. Adults are less likely to know what it’s like to grow up as a poor kid. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it really didn’t used to be that way in America. In my lifetime it wasn’t that way. That’s the point in beginning this in Port Clinton, where the rich kids and the poor kids lived within a couple of blocks of each other and they dated each other and they married each other. That means that this apartheid society that we’re moving toward not in racial terms but in class terms is a serious threat to the American Dream.

Your book Bowling Alone made a point about how our culture has changed regarding how we view our children. That point seems to carry through this new book as well.

As I was saying a little while ago, the economics that’s caused this big, growing income gap is an important part of the story. That’s real — that’s not cultural — that’s real. The increasing separation between who we live around, who we go to school with, and who we marry is the real sociological fact. But, there’s also a reflection in what I talked about in Bowling Alone, exactly as you say. The cultural pendulum in America has swung very far from being a kind of communitarian system in which we look out for one another to being a much more individualistic system. That’s captured in the way we talk about kids.

When I was growing up in Port Clinton … stick with me, I know it’s going to sound weird, but it’s true … when my parents talked about “our kids,” when they said “we got to do something about our kids,” “we got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a swimming pool,” or “for our kids, we ought to have a French department,” they did not mean my sister and me. They meant all the kids in town. They kept doing that, paying higher taxes so that “our kids” could have a swimming pool and a French department, long after their biological kids were gone. All the adults in that period had a sense of being responsible for all the kids in town. What’s happened over the last 30 or 40 years is that there’s been a shriveling of a sense of connection and obligation for other people. So now, when you use the expression “our kids” — you say, “our kids are doing pretty well” — you mean your own biological kids.

If you go back to Port Clinton now, and you talk to people there about the kids that are growing up on the wrong side of the tracks … a young woman we talked to named Mary Sue, they don’t think of Mary Sue as one of our kids, she’s someone else’s kids; let them worry about her and that’s the cultural change that’s happened. That’s why I call the book Our Kids, because I think fixing this problem is not mostly a matter of policy wonkery. I mean, I could tell you what we should do: we should spend more money in community colleges, a lot of other things we should do, but the underlying obstacle is actually a political obstacle. We have to get people on the upside of the opportunity gap to think of the kids on the downside of the opportunity gap as also their kids, our kids. If you actually thought of Mary Sue in Port Clinton as one of our kids, honestly, you wouldn’t sleep at night thinking about how can we help her.

That is a little bit of a stretch, I recognize that now in contemporary America, but it’s also self-interest; that is, helping poor kids isn’t just helping them, it does actually raise the productivity of our country. The cost of not investing in poor kids, having them end up on the dust heap sociologically and economically, will cost over their lifetime seven trillion dollars. That’s trillion with a “t.” That’s a lot of money. That means my grandchildren, who are going to be just fine on their own, they’re going to be worse off if we don’t help Mary Sue. First off because the Mary Sues of America are going to raise the total amount of money we have to spend on the criminal justice system, they’re going to raise a lot of what we have to spend on the health system because they are living very physically unhealthy live. But most of all, the country will miss their creative energy. By that I mean there’s 23 million kids like that, and there are a lot of smart kids in that 23 million who are not going to be inventing Facebook or some new camera or something. The loss of those talents hurts everybody in the country. So, my grandchildren will be poorer if we don’t do something for them.

Phrasing it another way around, we’ll all be better off including the kids on the upside of the gap. Sometimes people think this sounds like I’m saying that “oh, we have to become Sweden.” That’s not at all what I’m saying. This is as American as apple pie. This is the way we have historically done this. The last time we had a big gap rich and poor at the end of the 19th century we fixed the problem because the people on the upside of the gap began to realize it was in their self-interest and that it was morally just that we worry about poor kids. So what did we do? We invented the high school. Social reformers in America invented high schools around 1910 as a way of saying “everybody ought to have a fair start, and we ought to pay so that they get a fair start in life.” That was the best decision America ever made. I mean that quite sincerely because that decision alone raised the average productivity of the American economy and accounted for all of the economic growth in America in the 20th century. That’s what I mean when I say, “this is not about making America Scandinavia.” This is about going to our own roots, this the way we do things in America. We have gotten way off track in the last 30 or 40 years, and I’m just trying to nudge us back onto track.

Let’s switch gears and talk about the writing of the book. There’s a big conversation surrounding your book and the degree to which you’re telling individual stories and maybe not providing the kind of data to reach a diagnosis. Can you speak to that?

I’m a social scientist, and all social scientists are divided into counters and poets. I’m a counter. All of my previous research, like Bowling Alone, has lots of graphs and charts. This book, I want to influence people, and most people learn more from stories than from numbers. So, Our Kids has many more stories about real kids in my own hometown and from places all over America. More than half of this book is just telling the reader stories about pairs of families that are well off and not so well off. They’re the same ethnicity and in the same place. They differ in their affluence. The stories are designed to let you see what it’s like going to two such different schools coming from two such different backgrounds.

My hope is that people will be moved by these stories. Actually, almost everybody who has read the book finds the stories so moving — as one critic said “that it’s hard to read the book without crying.” On the other hand, I didn’t want people to think I was just picking up tear-jerking stories around the country just to say that “is it bad that we’re not helping poor kids?” So, the data in the chapters is meant to show that this is not just Bob Putnam fantasizing what it’s like to live in rich and poor areas. These are the facts that show how this gap between rich kids and poor kids has evolved over the last 30 or 40 years.

It was kind of a gamble writing the book. I know how to write about numbers; I wasn’t sure I knew how to write stories. I’m trying to have a new genre here of a book that mixes real stories with real numbers. I think the genre in which I’m trying to write is not a new genre, in the sense that, in earlier periods of social cleavage in America, people have done much of the same thing that I’m trying to do here. For example, in the gilded age in New York City a journalist wrote a book How the Other Half Lives. It was simply a description of growing up in the tenements of the Lower East Side of New York and showing that picture to the people living in the Silk Stocking District in the Upper East Side, essentially saying, “Look, did you know there are people living like this just 10 miles from where you live?” I’m not saying Our Kids will have that same effect, but that’s kind of what I’m trying to do. Another book in the same genre came out in the affluence of the 1960s when another journalist wrote a book called The Other America. He was speaking to the affluent Americans. He was saying, “you know, you’re pretty and comfy in the affluence of the 1960s, but there’s another America.” It’s a little highfalutin to say I’m going to match those authors because they both did have an effect on American public life, but that’s the aspiration, that genre — telling real stories that help Americans see: “Wow. We’ve gotten ourselves in a real pickle here. We got to do something about it.”


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