Photo credit: Alex Rivera
As the rich get wealthier and the poor continue to stay poor in America, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam along with his research team have dedicated their efforts to determining the cause of this great divide.
Putnam addressed this issue and shared the conclusions of his research last Monday in the Ragan Theatre as part of the presidential lecture series.
“My research team and I talked to hundreds of kids across the United States and discovered there is a huge contrast within our own community that continues to go unrecognized,” Putnam said.
Within a sample community in a higher-scale neighborhood, they found the percentage of children living below the poverty level was zero. Just across the street, more than 50 percent of children were living below the poverty level.
Neighborhoods with boundaries such as these can be found across the country, but Putnam believes it’s the lines we draw as a community that created what he calls the ‘opportunity gap’.
America’s working class was cinched when companies began outsourcing in the late 70s and local factories were shut down. Putnam’s research team observed a few cases involving children whose parents worked in those factories, noting that encouraging children to obtain a college education would have become increasingly vital at that time.
Though attending college is equally as important today to break out of financial boundaries, Putnam revealed that parents in the lower class are not adequately preparing children for college.
On average, wealthier parents spend 45 minutes of developmental time (reading, eating dinner, family activities, etc.) more each day with their kids than lower class parents. Putnam believes that this interaction or parental ‘ping pong’ is critical to child development, college preparation, and establishing trust.
“Across America, kids coming from college educated homes have a huge lead compared to other children that is increasing their intellect and capabilities,” Putnam said. “And not just with test scores- their entire brain is better wired because of those 45 extra minutes of ping pong.”
Parents from the upper one-third financial scale spend more time volunteering at their child’s school and are more involved with extra-curricular activities, and as a result, their children have a greater sense of social connectedness and trust.
Similar to cases he observed from the 1970s, Putnam found that lower class parents simply don’t have enough time to devote to child development. That aspect hasn’t changed, however, the way Americans treat their sense of community has shifted.
“How did this happen to a country which prides itself on being a place where any kid has the chance to succeed?” Putnam said. “The final answer is that over the last 30 years, the meaning of ‘our kids’ has gotten narrower. Now, when people say ‘my kids’, they’re only referring to their own biological children, there is no neighborhood community.”
Putnam’s findings may conclude that the solution to the wealth gap problem starts at home, and that we’re all responsible. If everyone in a community started to think more as whole rather than the traditional ‘how can my child get ahead’ mentality, it’s possible that children of the future could experience a more equal distribution of wealth.