Robert Putnam: Closing the Opportunity Gap

I went to a talk on ‘Closing the Opportunity Gap’ by Robert Putnam, renowned political scientist and Harvard professor, at the RSA recently. He came to talk to us about the subject of his most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Thank you to the RSA for putting on a great public event for free.
Thank you to the RSA for putting on a great public event for free.

Putnam tells us a story about Miriam and Mary Sue*. Miriam and Mary Sue were born in Port Clinton, a small city in Ohio, in the 1990s. Growing up there wasn’t much to tell them apart, but fast-forward 20 years and the difference is stark.

Miriam went to a good high school, and a top university. She is on track to get a good job and her future is bright. Mary Sue’s parents split up when she was five. Her mum neglected her and her dad’s partner hit her. She went from an abusive home to abusive relationships. She has been in juvenile detention. Her future is a continuing downward spiral of isolation and abuse. The researcher who collected Mary Sue’s story says it “tells a harrowing tale of loneliness, distrust and isolation.”

What explains these vastly different experiences in the last 20 years of two women so similar in their youth? Miriam is Robert Putnam’s granddaughter, and her parents went to college. Mary Sue’s parents did not.

“…a harrowing tale of loneliness, distrust and isolation.”

Putnam’s central thesis is that whether or not your parents went to college is now the single most important determining factor in the opportunities you get. His theory is backed up by an impressive amount of field research, detailed in his book.

Putnam has a powerful analogy for this experience. He asks us to imagine a kid from an affluent background doing a dumb thing – they drink too much, take drugs, have a car accident or experience a bad relationship. Instantly, airbags inflate. They are protected from the worst features of that mistake and the support network around them ensures they learn a lesson. Now, imagine a poor kid does exactly the same dumb thing. There are no air bags. There are no learning curves. These kids are alone.

Do you remember when it was fashionable for our MPs to admit to minor drug use in their youth? When Chuka Umunna admitted to taking marijuana he said, “I don’t think it’s news any more, to be honest.” His relaxed attitude to admitting illegal drug use is indicative of the gulf between people who can afford to make that mistake, and those who cannot.

We have to fix it. The opportunity gap between rich and poor is an issue we are very familiar with here in Britain, and in the US it is estimated that failing to invest in poor children costs the country around $5 trillion. Trillion with a T!

It is hard to find the motivation when we are conditioned to see ‘authority’ baring the face of a public school educated white male. But we should be motivated to look for opportunity gaps, in the same way some of us look for gender gaps and a lack of diversity, and consider what we can do to narrow them.

Even if we look for the gaps, it is hard to know what we can do. That is why we should fund the necessary research into its causes, and actually read the reports that result from it. Putnam and his team are striving to bring the problem to the attention of policymakers in the US. We should pressure local and national government to make genuine equal opportunities a priority.

By failing to close the opportunity gap we are losing the value that our poor kids have to offer, which is a grave injustice to them and a huge cost to us all.

*Some of the names in Putnam’s lectures were changed, but their stories are real.

You can watch Putnam’s whole lecture here. I recommend it if you have a spare hour, he struck me as an incredibly interesting person.


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