Book Review: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam

Leading up to ElevatEd: Education and the Economy, the Holdsworth Book Club is highlighting compelling books written by the conference’s dynamic lineup of speakers. This month, our staff reviewed Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Our Kids Robert PutnamRich or poor, all kids should be thought of as “our kids” if we want our nation to thrive.

That’s what author Robert Putnam wants us to take away from his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which explores the growing divide in income equality in the United States.

What Putnam calls the “opportunity gap” between the economic prospects of advantaged kids versus their disadvantaged counterparts is staggering, and is already formed by the time kids reach high school. He paints a vivid example by using his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio as a microcosm of the nation as a whole.

Putnam writes, “Comparing Port Clinton kids in the 1950s with Port Clinton kids today, the opportunity gap has widened dramatically, partly because affluent kids now enjoy more advantages than affluent kids then, but mostly because poor kids now are in much worse shape than their counterparts then.” He questions the promise of the American Dream – that no matter one’s origin, one can have a fair start in life and that if we work hard we will achieve success.

According to Putnam, this is no longer the case around the country. It has become increasingly difficult for students from low-income families to perform as high as their peers from high-income families. In fact, the research shows that rich kids with lower intelligence have higher college graduation rates than poor kids with high intelligence. The best way for a student to ensure he or she has the best opportunities in life is to choose their parents, which of course is not possible.

The opportunity gap isn’t just an issue for the low-income families. Putnam estimates the cost of this gap to be $500 billion per year stemming from the price of criminal justice and health care to the lack of skilled workers who could be contributing to the economy if they had the opportunity. Putnam argues that investing in poor kids today will lead to brighter futures for everyone tomorrow. A mind shift is needed to start thinking of “those kids” as “our kids.”

This topic will take center stage during our inaugural daylong conference, ElevatEd: Education & the Economy, where we hope to ignite a conversation among attendees – one that spurs reflection and action.

Putnam, a renowned political scientist at Harvard, will speak at ElevatEd. He first explored the topic in his book written more than 20 years ago, Bowling Alone, in which describes increasing alienation of Americans from their families and communities, and the political process. And now, in his recent book, he describes the consequences of a fractured and insular society.

Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed by ElevatEd panelists and speakers are solely those of the individuals and do not necessarily represent those of The Holdsworth Center.

Interested in learning more from Putnam? Register to attend ElevatEd: Education and the Economy on June 4 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a thought-provoking conference with an inspiring lineup of speakers. Space is limited so register today.