WASHINGTON (CNS) — Robert Putnam, who has been charting the relative strength of the American social fabric since his 1995 book “Bowling Alone,” said May 11 the “inequality of opportunity” in the United States is what is leading to a sense of despair and isolation among the nation’s poor.
Putnam, a political science professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, used his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, as an example during a presentation he made at a Georgetown University-hosted Catholic-evangelical summit on overcoming poverty.
Based on interviews he and his associates had conducted with members of his high school graduating class of 1959, Putnam said, “about 80 percent of them did better than their parents,” adding that “those who came from the bad side of the tracks did just about as well as those who came from the good.”
Then, he said, there was not a great deal of income or wealth disparity. Jobs could be had fishing on Lake Erie, or at one of a number of manufacturing plants. Putnam was able to go to college thanks to a grant from a local organization.
But in the Port Clinton of today, much has changed. The town’s east side, where the factories had been, is now “a ghost town,” according to Putnam. The pollution in Lake Erie took away the fishing jobs.
Putnam then told the tale of two young women of the same age with roots in Port Clinton. One was Miriam, his own granddaughter. She’s a junior in college majoring in French literature. Putnam helped finance a trip she took to France to delve more deeply into French cuisine and culture.
The other woman Putnam called Mary Sue. Her grandfather is a couple of years younger than Putnam. But Mary Sue “made one mistake: She chose the wrong parents,” Putnam said.
Mary Sue’s parents divorced when she was age 5. Her mother became a stripper, sometimes leaving her daughter alone “for days at a time,” Putnam said. Her father’s new girlfriend refused to feed her. By the time she turned 13, Mary Sue had gotten pregnant but later on lost the child.
At his most recent interview with Mary Sue, Putnam said he noticed marks on one of her arms from where an ex-boyfriend had burned her weeks before. She has a new boyfriend now, an older man who has children born to two different women two months apart, and who wants to make Mary Sue a “model,” Putnam noted, wagging his fingers as quote marks for emphasis.
In her most recent Facebook posting, Putnam said, Mary Sue said she wanted to have a baby, because “the baby will love me.”
Based on interviews he and his team have done in metropolitan areas big and small throughout the country, Putnam declared, “There are Mary Sues everywhere.”
Putnam, whose latest book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” details the situation in greater depth, said the “opportunity gap” is growing more pronounced between the children of college-educated parents and the children of parents who advanced only as far as high school.
There’s a 7-to-1 gap in the amount of money spent on enrichment activities such as summer camps and music lessons. Family time with young children — which Putnam called “‘Goodnight Moon’ time” after the popular children’s story — was roughly the same for both groups in 1980, but now there is a 7-to-2 ratio in favor of the better-educated.
The frequency of family dinner time dipped for the better educated but leveled off around 1990, while for the less educated, it’s down to 60 percent and still dropping. Eighty-five percent of children from college-educated families take part in extracurricular activities, but only 65 percent of children from high school-educated households do. Putnam attributed some of this to public schools deeming extracurricular activities “frills” in an era of tight budgets, forcing parents and students to pay for the cost of participating.
Even church attendance is better among the better educated, Putnam said: 28 percent and dipping slightly, compared to 20 percent and sinking at a faster rate for children from high school-educated families.
Putnam said the gap is growing because of the “collapse of the working-class family,” economic insecurity among poor families, and a frayed social safety net — which he said was not just welfare checks and food stamps, but assistance from churches, organizations and neighbors who could have been depended on in a previous generation.
He still holds hope for the future. The current situation, according to Putnam, mirrors in many ways the Gilded Age, and American indignation over its disparities brought about the Progressive movement.
“I want to begin a conversation right now on how to close the opportunity gap,” Putnam said. “I want this to be the top issue in the 2016 presidential election. Not because all of the candidates are going to agree on what to do. They’re going to disagree, and then we’ll have a real discussion.”