Harvard public policy professor Robert D. Putnam, a giant among intellectuals, is best known for his groundbreaking 2000 volume Bowling Alone, which documented a troubling decline in civic engagement. Fifteen years later, Putnam is back with a monumental opus on an even more disturbing topic: America’s growing economic divide. Just as Putnam’s earlier work sounded the alarm about America’s declining social capital, his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, marshals considerable evidence to suggest that social mobility in America seems “poised to plunge in the years ahead.”

Invoking James Joyce’s line that “If I can get at the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all cities in the world,” Putnam’s conceit is to begin with the story of his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio, where he graduated from high school in 1959.

In those days, race and gender were enormous barriers; bright women dropped out of college in droves to get married. An African American classmate had a cross erected in her yard when her family tried to move into a white neighborhood.

Our Kids: The American
Dream in Crisis
by Robert D. Putnam
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp.

At the same time, low economic status was less of an impediment than it is today. In 1950s, children of different classes, Putnam writes, “mixed unselfconsciously in schools and neighborhoods” and most came from two-parent households. It was an era of “strong unions” and social class “was not a major constraint” on opportunity. “My home town was, in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background.” Today, however, “kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that waits the kids from the right side of the tracks.”

From Port Clinton, Putnam widens the frame to tell a larger American story, drawing upon individual families in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Bend, Oregon and Orange County, California. Throughout, Putnam returns to the theme that as we examine issues of class, race and gender – the holy trinity of the sociologists – we see slow (if insufficient) progress over a half century for minorities and women but movement backwards for poor and working-class Americans. “The power of race, class and gender to shape life chances in American has been substantially reconfigured,“ he writes.

This is a new dynamic. American racial barriers, through slavery and segregation, have historically been higher than in Europe, while Europe with its inherited nobility, had higher class barriers than the U.S. But an important reversal has occurred within the United States.

Consider, for example, the issue of marriage across racial and class lines. Whereas interracial marriage was once illegal in many states, today it is increasingly common. By contrast, while marriage across class lines became increasingly accepted in the first half of the twentieth century, Putnam notes, subsequently, “that trend reversed itself” as educated people became less likely than in the past to marry those with less education.

Putnam takes us through a panoramic examination of inequality in four primary areas –family, parenting, schooling, and community — and suggests that in each case, race and gender are declining in significance relative to class.

To begin with, family structure can be a major source of inequality. Researchers have found that being raised in a single parent household, on average reduces a child’s chances of success compared with a child being reared in a two-parent household. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously highlighted the issue in his 1965 report on The Negro Family. “In the 1970s, the two-tiered family structure was closely correlated with race,” Putnam writes, ”but since that time it has become increasingly associated with parents’ social class more than race….College-educated blacks are looking more like college-educated whites, and less-educated whites are looking more like less-educated blacks.” Of children living in single parent households, less than 10 percent live with a parent who is college-educated compared with more than 65 percent of these kids who are living with a parent that has a high school diploma or less.

Parenting practices are also crucial to a child’s brain development and life chances. Educated parents are more likely to hug their children, to have frequent dinners as a family, and less likely to spank than working class parents. Gaps in the amount of money invested in child rearing have also grown. Between 1983 and 2007, the top tenth spent 75 percent more per child in real dollars, the middle fifth spent 6 percent more, while spending by the bottom tenth actually dropped by 22 percent. More-educated parents spend more time with their children on average, especially on nurturing activities such as reading. “In the 1970s, there were virtually no class differences in how much time a child got with mom or dad. By 2013, however, the average infant or toddler of college-educated parents was getting half again as much Goodnight Moon time every day as the average infant or toddler of high-school educated parents.” “Rich kids get more face time, while poor kids get more screen time,” Putnam writes. Not surprisingly, by the time students enter school, 72 percent of middle class children know the alphabet compared to just 19 percent of poor children who do.

Schooling has long been unequally distributed by race in America, but Putnam finds that increasingly the key divide is class. Rising residential segregation by class “has been translated into de facto class-based school segregation.” This is troublesome, Putnam writes, because extensive evidence suggests “[w]hom you go to school with matters a lot.”

One study Putnam cites finds that after controlling for family and academic background and school inputs, students who attend a high school with classmates from a high socioeconomic status have a 68 percent higher probability of enrolling in a four year college than a student who attends a school where classmates have a low socioeconomic status.

Upper-middle class schools provide kids with peers who plan to go to college, while high poverty schools have four times the concentration of students with academic, attention, and behavioral problems than their wealthier counterparts. In middle-class schools, parents can provide as much as a 17 percent boost in school budgets through private fundraising. They also demand three times as many AP classes as are available in high poverty schools. The key determinant of how many AP classes is “parental income, not race,” Putnam notes. Indeed, after controlling for poverty, urbanism, school size and other factors, “heavily minority schools actually offer more AP courses than mostly white schools.” Finally, middle-class schools tend to draw stronger teachers who avoid the tougher working environment found in high-poverty schools.

Coinciding with this period of rising economic school segregation has been an increase in the math and reading test score gap by income. While the achievement gap between black and white students has slowly decreased over time, Putnam notes that Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon’s landmark study from 2011 finds that the income achievement gap has grown 30 to 40 percent for children born in 2001 compared with those born 25 years earlier.

Interestingly, Putnam suggests that another commonly cited source of inequality – academic tracking – is not a culprit in the rising income achievement gap. The tracking gap by income has narrowed by about one third, even as the achievement gap by income has widened.

In higher education, Putnam reports that racial and (especially) gender barriers have waned, as class barriers are on the rise. While women used to drop out of college in large numbers to get married, today, “women are more likely to graduate from college than men.” Minority students remain under-represented at selective colleges, but students from the bottom socioeconomic quartile are far more dramatically underrepresented. In 2004, students from the top quarter by socioeconomic status outnumbered those from the bottom socioeconomic quarter by 14:1.

Finally, Putnam suggests, communities themselves have become more unequal. Income segregation by neighborhood, he says, “was significantly higher in 2010 than it was in 1970.” Putnam suggests, “While race-based segregation has been slowly declining” we have seen the rise of “a kind of incipient class apartheid” This matters because living in a poor neighborhood reduces the quality of life on a number of fronts, in terms of education, health and civic engagement. There is also more communal parenting in wealthier areas, and higher levels of social trust.

In examining life chances of students, Putnam would have done well to examine a fifth area of inequality: the employment prospects of students’ parents. Putnam notes that an increase in a parent’s income by $3,000 in a child’s first years of life is associated with academic gains on the order of 20 SAT points and adult earnings that are nearly 20 percent higher.

Employment earnings are determined in part by the prevalence of employer discrimination, and as with other arenas, the last half century has seen a shift from race to class. Before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, open and flagrant employment discrimination against African Americans was common. While racial discrimination in employment remains a problem, Putnam notes that “controlling for education, racial gaps in income are modest.”

By contrast, class-based discrimination against workers trying to unionize has been on the rise. In the 1950s, organized labor was at its peak, representing one-third of private sector workers. It is no coincidence that a strong labor movement coincided with an era of broadly shared prosperity, as workers were able to win a fair share of productivity gains. But over time, businesses began to openly discriminate against employees trying to organize a union, a practice which has essentially stopped labor organizing in its tracks. Globalization has caused unions to suffer throughout the world, but the fall of unions has been much steeper in the U.S. than in other countries also subject to the forces of globalization. Routine employer discrimination against union organizing in the United States has caused Freedom House to rate the United States as far less free on labor rights than 41 other countries with modern economies and significant trade union movements.

What is to be done? Putnam, who does an exhaustive and masterful job of analyzing the forces that have fueled economic inequality of opportunity, devotes less than 10 percent of his ink to solutions. He outlines a variety of good ideas, including expanding the Earned Income Tax credit, reducing over-incarceration and broadening access to high-quality early childhood education.

Given the evidence he lays out about the dangers of rising socioeconomic residential segregation, he wisely calls for mixed-income housing policies like one in New Jersey in which “poor kids whose families were moved into a more affluent area achieved higher test scores and went further in school than comparable kids who were not moved.” An astonishing 96 percent of the children of movers graduated from high school compared with 29 percent of the control group. Putnam also wisely calls for increasing funding of community colleges, which are under-resourced.

What might have Putnam added to the list? Conceptually, if his central thesis is that class is eclipsing race as our central source of inequality, should we not consider updating our civil rights laws to address class inequality as well? Given our strides on the racial front in the last half century, why not extend civil rights remedies to larger class inequities?

In K-12 schooling, 80 school districts, from Cambridge Massachusetts to Champaign Illinois, are seeking to desegregate their schools by socioeconomic status as an update to Brown v. Board of Education. In higher education, states like Florida and Texas now provide affirmative action on the basis of economic disadvantage. To combat discrimination against those trying to organize a union, Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Lewis have proposed applying Civil Rights Act sanctions against employers who violate worker rights. And just as the Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate based on race, why not make it illegal for communities to employ zoning laws to exclude families from entire regions on the basis of income?

America rightly celebrates the victories of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” as President Obama memorably put it in his second inaugural address. But now we need new remedies to advance not only the rights of female, black, and gay Americans but low-income and working-class Americans of all stripes. As Putnam notes, failing to reach economically disadvantaged kids hurts our efforts to promote economic growth because we waste the talents these students have to offer. It diminishes our democracy and “violates our deepest religious and moral values.” Robert Putnam is a legend among American thinkers and he has mustered his considerable analytical prowess to shine critical light on America’s defining issue. It is up to us to answer his call and devise solutions that are equal to the task.

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.