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[aspen] Robert Putnam on the growing class gap

Robert Putnam is giving a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival called “Requiem for the American Dream? Unequal Opportunity in America.” It’s a project in its middle stages, he says. If a book comes out of the research, it’s a year or two out.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

There’s a difference between the inequality of income and wealth, and inequality of opportunity. Historically Americans have not cared much about income inequality…less than is typical of the rest of the world. But we do care about unequal opportunity and unequal social mobility. Concern about income inequality has sometimes divided along party lines, but not opportunity inequality. Historically we’ve been better than most other countries in the distribution of opportunity.

Income distribution has become more skewed since the 1970s in America, and in many other countries. We’ve also become a more class-segregated society, even as we’ve become less segregated by race and religion. Class segregation is increasing by residence, education, organization, and marriage; i.e., it’s less likely you’ll marry outside of your class. There’s also been a fraying of family and social bonds within the working class. Robert asks if this has an effect on the growing inequality of opportunity.

He talks about his methodology. The standard way of measuring social mobility compares 30-somethings’ economic/educational/social standing with their parents’ standing when the parents were in their 30s. But this means all the action is at least twenty years old; the latest studies look at people raised in the 1980s. Robert is instead looking at today’s kids, to avoid the 20-30 year old blind spot in the rearview mirror. “If we look out the windshield, we’re about to go over a cliff when it comes to social mobility…Social mobility and opportunity are going to plummet.”

If something is important enough to write about, it ought to show up in multiple measures, he says. He will show us robust patterns in multiple data sources, focusing only on class differences. He’s only looking at white youth for now, because while racial gaps remain important, they are increasingly based on class, not race. It’s important to look at race issues, but that’s not what Robert is considering. He says if you look at race as well, the social mobility trends look even worse. So, he’s going to show us growing class gaps over the past 30 years among white kids with 2-parent families.

He shows charts. The rate of births to unmarried mothers who are college grads hasn’t changed. But the percentage of those births to women with some college and women with no college has significantly increased. About a third of the births to unmarried women are to women with some college; it’s about half for women with no college. Meanwhile, the racial gap (i.e., race controlling for class) fell dramatically while the class gap (class controlling for race) grew at about the same rate. I.e., high school educated white folks are behaving more and more like high school educated non-white folks. “I’m not saying race doesn’t matter. I’m saying class matters a whole lot more. And race matters a whole lot less.”

Another chart. ” Over the last two decades or so, white kids coming from less educated, less well-off backgrounds are more and more going through life with only one parent at home.”

A chart of the “growing class gap in enrichment expenditures [day care, tutors, games, etc., but not private school] on children, 1972-2006.” At the bottom of the hierarchy, the expenditure has increased about $400 per child over the past 40 years, but at the middle income, it’s gone up $5K.

The time people invest in their kids — reading to the kids, etc., but not including diaper changing time, etc. — again shows a growth gap between those with a higher ed and those without. In the 1970s, moms with only HS were investing slightly more time with their kids. Now the number of minutes for both is going up, the growth has been “much much faster” among college educated moms. When you add in the dads, the gap grows even larger — it’s up to an hour a day more quality time with their parents.

When in the lifecycle of the child is the class gap biggest? It’s concentrated among infants. “It’s terrible. Just terrible.”

How are kids connecting at schools? Looking at participation in extracurricular activities, and activities outside school like music lessons, dance lessons, art lessons, etc., excluding sports. (This is, he reminds us, only data about white kids, but the class gap gets worse if you add in non-white kids.) Kids in the lower income quartile have declining participation rates. Those in the highest quartile have a growing rate. (The decline began sharply in 1982.)

Same chart for participation in sports. For kids becoming team captains, it’s stayed steady for the lower quartile kids. Middle class kids were always more likely to become team captains, but now 26% of them say that they’ve been team captains. “Think about what kids are learning” from these activities: how to get along with kids, how to make connections with people who are not like them… the skill set we need in this new world. (Robert tells us HS football was invented by progressives about 100 years ago as a way to get kids from all classes playing together.)

Outside school in music, dance and art lessons: same growing gap.

There is a declining gap in participation in student government. But that’s happening in part because upper quartile kids are choosing not to participate. The other area in which the gap is declining is in “vocational clubs,” e.g., shop, motorcycle club. Again, the upper class kids are declining to participate.

Church-going: All are decreasing, but the upper third is decreasing much less rapidly. “There’s been a catastrophic drop in church attendance among children of working class parents.”

The chart of comunity volunteering is more complex, but overall the upper tercile has been rapidly increasing, while the bottom tercile has been dopping in the 2000’s. One possible explanation: Robert points out that colleges like to see community volunteering on applications.

Chart of social support: Do you have someone you can count on? Sharply increasing gap. Working class kids: it’s been pretty flat. Ask “Would you say most people can be trusted?” and you’ll see a long-term decline among the kids of parents in the bottom tercile, while the upper tercile kids have become more trusting. “And why not?” The upper class kids have plenty of social support, while the support systems are being withdrawn from the bottom tercile kids.

All this shows up in reading and math test scores. Increasing gap mapped against class. Declining gap mapped against race.

Bottom line: “There’s a growing class gap among American youth among all the predictors of success in life.” “A social mobility crash is coming” as these cohorts move into adulthood. Everyone who’s looked at the data agrees, he says.

But what has this happened? We don’t know for sure. About ten years ago he was in the White House talking with Pres. Bush, Karl Rove, and others, talking about this. (He charmingly apologizes for namedropping.) The first question W asked was “How much of this has do to family structure?” A: A little less than half. Even if you look only at 2-parent families, the gap is there but only about half of the size. None of it is due to immigration. But, suggested Robert, it might be due to the income gap. Then Laura Bush said “If you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your house or your job, you have less energy to invest in your kids.” Robert thinks this makes sense.

Possible explanations: (1) Upper class families have increased their investment in cognitive and non-cognitive development. (2) Collapse of white working class. (3) Laura Bush’s hypothesis. (4) The social safety nets are gone: churches, sports leagues, parks and rec, etc. “If the chick falls out of the nest, all that’s down there are gangs.” It is, he says, a perfect storm.

This is a problem that the two parties should be able to cooperate on, if they could cooperate about anything. We need to boost caring families, boost jobs and wages for the bottom half of the workforce, invest in public education, invest in in high quality Head Start, and have more reliable volunteer mentors. “I don’t know what else we can do to fix the problem…but if we don’t fix it we’re writing off a third of our workforce. And, it’s just not fair.” Until we think of all of these kids as our kids, “we’re in a pickle.”


Q: Any data on kids of parents in the military?

A: I don’t have data. I wish I did because enlisted men and women are mostly drawn from the lower class, and my hunch is that their kids are doing better than non-military kids. I think that the discipline instilled into the military maybe carries over into the structure of the families.

Q: I teach HS in a rural area of OR. We got multicultural sensitivity training. I asked why aren’t we talking about class because I see it every day. I hope your work translates into teacher training.

A: Surprisingly to me, when I talk to groups, almost always when elementary school teachers speak up, they say they see this problem in their own class.

Q: Harrington, NSF, others have said the same thing over the years. This is the fourth time I’ve seen the same red flag. How does this translate into policy?

A: This particular growing gap wasn’t true in Harrington’s day. There’s always been a class gap in American society but it’s way worse than in the ’60s. I’m working on a book aimed at a mass market. We’re gathering the stories of these kids. I’m hoping that if you talk about real kids, it will get people’s attention. I desperately fear we’re going to have a partisan argument about who’s to blame, and I don’t care about that.

Q: Some will argue about the cost.

A: It’ll be much more expensive not to fix this. These lower third kids will be on unemployment and in prison….

Q: College admissions could be fixed…

A: Most of the damage is done way before then.

Q: The social safety net is under constant resource. We need govt policy and money. Our churches and philanthropies are not enough.

A: I’m a progressive Democrat so I think govt has a role to play. But this is a fundamental American issue. It does have to involve churches. I happen to think that hugs and time are more important than money, but money is important too.

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