The American Dream in crisis: A conversation with Robert Putnam

Last week, Fordham hosted Robert Putnam for a discussion of his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which argues that a growing opportunity gap is leaving many American children behind. Watch the replay of the event, or read the transcript of the event below.

Michael Petrilli:              

Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon. My name is Mike Petrilli. I am the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. For those of you that don’t know us, we are an educational policy think tank. We are based here in Washington, D.C. but we also do on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio which also features prominently in Dr. Putnam’s book. You can shout out for Ohio, that’s okay. Yes, and just as long as it’s not Ohio State, that’s another story. But Thomas B. Fordham was an industrialist way back in the day in Dayton, Ohio, so we have a mission to do on-the-ground school reform work in Ohio. We push for educational reform out of Columbus and we are actually a charter school authorizer out of Dayton and have 11 charter schools all over the state of Ohio.

Before I go any further most important thing I have to give you the hashtag for today’s event. Did you have a hashtag with the president yesterday? I can’t remember that happening or not, but it is “ourkids”, very simple, # ourkids. If you see people on their phones, it is because they are tweeting. If you see me on my phone, it is because I am following the twitter conversation so I can bring it in here today.

I am deeply honored to introduce and to host Professor Robert Putnam. I will try not to gush too much, but I have been a huge fan of Dr. Putnam’s for at least 20 years, way, way back to my youth, and so this is a little bit like sharing the stage with one of my other young heroes. It is almost like having Bono on the stage or Ozzie Smith, the St. Louis Cardinals for those of you who don’t know, I grew up in the Midwest, Ozzie Smith.

This is exciting for me to have Dr. Putnam here. And as many people have been writing when they have been reviewing his book—and I think pretty much everybody has reviewed his book at this point—is that what makes him so special as a policy wonk, and we have many policy wonks in the crowd here today, Dr. Putnam, is that he has been able to transcend the world of the academy but also the policymaker world. And he captured the attention and imagination of policymakers at the very highest levels, including yesterday when he was sharing the stage with the president of the United States of America. I think all of us policy wonks can say wow that is really, really cool that you got to do that, right? Pretty amazing.

Alright, now for the formal introduction. Robert Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the British academy, past president of the American Political Science Association. He has received many awards including the Skytte prize, the most prestigious global award in political science, National Humanities medal, and is the author of many books. Many of you probably first came to know him through Bowling Alone, which no doubt has had a huge impact on the way we think about social capital and related issues in America.

He is here to talk about his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. For those of you here, you can purchase the book outside afterwards for $24 and Professor Putnam has agreed to stay and sign books. That is very exciting. It is a fantastic book. It is definitely worth your attention, as are the many reviews that have been written about it. And these reviews are actually very helpful for me—it gives us a lot of fodder to talk about some of the reactions that you have gotten.

Those of us here at Fordham are particularly excited to hear Dr. Putnam talk about the implications of his work on education. We’ve focused on education reform for 20 years. We have been studying and writing about and promoting standards-based reform, now best known as Common Core, which is where that is headed, as well as expanding parental choice in education and probably the charter school movement is the best embodiment of that. We continue, and will always continue, to promote those two big issues, but we have a third issue that we have been getting into and that is a personal passion of mine, and that’s what we are calling Education for Upward Mobility. We have a line of work where what we are trying to do is to step back a little bit as members of the education-reform community and ask this question: “Are we on the right track in education reform when we think about our strategy for helping many, many more low income kids climb out of poverty and climb into the middle class?”

It is my concern, and my nagging suspicion, that even though many of our strategies make perfect sense—for example, we absolutely want many, many, many more low-income kids to go to and through college, to and through four-year degrees. Therefore, the no-excuses-charter schools like KIPP, which got a mention in the book, that are preparing kids up to these high standards, or efforts like Common Core to raise the bar and to tell parents the truth about whether the kids are on track, or efforts to improve teaching and learning, and raise standards for teachers—all of this makes a ton of sense. But, I have also been worried that our focus on getting more low income kids to and through four-year college degrees may be too narrow.

Even if we succeed in that right now, we are only getting about 10% of low-income kids to and through four-year degrees. So, if we double that, and we should, or triple that, and we should, that still leaves an awful lot of low-income kids for the foreseeable future that need other pathways to the middle class. The good news for my perspective is that I believe there are other pathways and Dr. Putnam writes about some of those in the book. For example, technical programs where kids are still going to college, broadly defined, but getting post-secondary credentials that may not be a 4-year degree and may be technical in nature.

The trick though is that the best programs that lead to those kinds of post-secondary credentials tend to start in high school. So, if all of our school reform efforts, K-12, are focused on traditional college prep, we may be missing the boat here. You look in the charter school movement, maybe a dozen, maybe two dozen, charter schools have a career and technical education focus. None of the big name brand charter networks have a technical focus like that.

I worry that we are overlooking things and that we also, by focusing so much on education as the on-ramp to upward mobility, as we should, we may not be paying enough attention to the common off-ramps that we know there are; common off-ramps detours for many of our low-income kids that keep them from climbing into the middle class. The most common one is probably early and unwed childbirth and parenthood. Should our schools, especially our high schools, be working with our young people to help them make good decisions around family formation, around “when do they decide to have children?” How do they know that they are ready and how can we help them wait until they are ready? Just as we help them make good decisions about their post-secondary options.

That’s a lot to talk about, and I am really excited to have Dr. Putnam here to help us unpack all of that, and to tell us the stories from his book and the research that he has looked at that is telling, in many ways, a very depressing story about what’s happening to America’s children, but also—this is a man who has great optimism—what can we do to reverse some of the trends that we are seeing.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Robert Putnam.

Robert Putnam:               

Thanks very much. I realize I may not be able to see all of you. I was going to prefer to sit but maybe I have to stand. I am going to keep ducking back and forth.

What a pleasure for me to be here. I really appreciate the invitation. I know, by name, many of the people in the room, and I am honored by your presence here. This is mainly going to be a conversation, not a lecture, though there is nothing so trivial that a Harvard professor can’t figure out a way to inflate it to 50 minutes. I am going to try to talk much less than that.

If I am right about it, it is pretty dangerous for the future of America, and that is a growing opportunity gap between rich kids and poor kids—that is a growing gap in the resources and the opportunities and the challenges that face kids coming from affluent backgrounds and kids coming from impoverished backgrounds.

And by rich, I don’t mean Bill Gates’ kids and by poor, I don’t mean some homeless kid. I just mean basically the upper third of American society which is, in round numbers, those Americans who have a college degree. Can I see the hands of all the people who have a college degree? When I say rich, I mean you; us, I mean. By poor, I don’t mean the poor street people, or homeless people; I mean what we used to call the working class—that is kids coming from homes where no one has gotten past high school.

And we have had a conversation, a growing conversation, of course, in America over the last several years about growing income inequality which is the distribution of income among adults, with Bill Gates over there and some really poor person over here. That distribution of income, or outcomes, has never preoccupied Americans as much as it has people in other countries, because we have assumed that everybody is getting on the ladder at the same point. Some people are bound to climb higher, faster, because they are better climbers or they work harder or whatever, but that’s on the assumption that we all get on the ladder roughly at the same point. And, we have cared a lot about, more than other countries have, about that assumption. That is, about the assumption that people, basically everybody, is getting a roughly equal and fair start in life and then if some people do better, that’s fine, good on them.

But, the question of whether that’s true still is, therefore, I think a question that goes to the identity of America. I think, if I am right, it is less and less true that people are getting on the ladder, and more and more what matters for kids’ opportunities are not their own native God-given skills and talents and their own grit, or what my mom calls stick-to-it-iveness, but rather their parents’ resources, where they came from. And that, if I am right about the facts, is bad for several reasons.

It is bad because, first of all, it is really bad for the economy. It is not costless to the whole economy to have some kids who are just, before they even step off the ladder, are not going to be able to contribute. And, there are a lot of different econometric estimates, in round numbers, the cost of—the lifetime cost of—the, roughly speaking, 23 or 25 million poor kids in America; the lifetime costs for the rest of us are about seven trillion dollars. I am not going to rise and fall whether that is seven or six; it is a lot of money. And, none of that is welfare cost. Part of it is criminal justice cost. A larger part of it is health cost, because these kids are beginning life with conditions that make them almost certain to be much less healthy, much sicker sooner—and more seriously—than the rest of us, and somebody is going to pick up the bill for that. But, most important, there is a real opportunity cost to the fact that they are not contributing to the economy.

And, if it’s the case that, as some numbers suggest, roughly 70 percent of bright, poor kids don’t graduate from college, as opposed to 69 percent of dumb, rich kids who don’t graduate from college, that implies a serious cost, because those smart, poor kids that are not going to college would otherwise be making contributions that would benefit all of us. So, to put it in a nutshell, my grandchildren are going to be worse off if we don’t invest in, and bring forward, poor kids. It is not like there is a zero-sum game here: If you can help the poor kids, it is bad for my kids. On the contrary, if we help the poor kids, it is good for my kids, my grandchildren, I mean.

So, that’s what’s at stake. So, what is the evidence? I am going to summarize very, very quickly, because I am happy to have you push and probe at the evidence.

I think there are two kinds of evidence in the book, Our Kids. Partly, there are a lot of stories, and I will say a little bit later about why there are all these stories about rich kids and poor kids, but it takes a long time to tell stories. So, I am not going to tell the stories here, although I am happy to because I think, in a way, that is meant to be the most important part of the book.

But the facts, the data, show a series of what we call scissor graphs. That is, a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids on many different measures in which rich kids are doing better and better, and poor kids are doing worse and worse on the same measures over time, over the last thirty or forty years.

[…] And that gap looks like this, because there is a very rapid increase in the number of working-class—what we used to call working-class—kids who are living in single-parent families. There are racial differences in the level of single-parent families, but the trends, the growth, is concentrated among white working-class kids, because that’s where the most rapid growth of single-parent, or out-of-wedlock, births is concentrated. And, there is a big debate to be had about why that’s true. I’m happy to begin that discussion, if you would like to, later on, how much of it is due to economic problems, and how much of it is due to changed norms and culture. I think it is a little bit of both, but I am happy to talk about that evidence. But, the evidence is pretty clear that it matters for kids. Let me always be clear about this—there are lots of single moms in America who are doing a terrific job against the odds of raising their kids. But, it is just easier to invest in your kids if there are two parents around, for many, many reasons.

So, there is a growing gap in family stability. There is a growing gap in investments that parents make in their kids. Basically, we do invest in our kids in terms of time, and we invest in terms of money. In terms of money, there is a very sharply growing scissors gap in which kids coming from upper, well-educated homes are having more and more money spent on them. These are my own grandchildren, so I am not being critical at all. A lot more money is being spent on what’s called “enrichment activities.” That’s summer camp, and it’s piano lessons, and it is trips to France, and so on. That’s now about $7,000 per kid in well-off homes, as opposed to less than $1,000 in poor homes.

Therefore, what that means, inevitably, is that there is a big summer-camp gap, and there is a big piano-lesson gap, and there is a big trip-to-France gap. I use that example specifically because my granddaughter is studying French literature at Haverford, and she is terrific. I am really proud of her. And, we helped to pay for her to go to France to study French cuisine and so on.

So, I am not being critical of those folks. I am saying there is a huge consequence of that gap. And, there is a similar gap, an even more portentous gap, in terms of investment, not in terms of money, but in terms of time—what we in our project have called a “Goodnight Moon” gap. That is, the gap in terms of how much time parents spend with kids. All parental time with kids can be divided into two categories: physical care, which is diaper time, and enrichment care, which we call “Goodnight Moon” time. Diaper time turns out to be (a) no class difference in diaper time: It takes just as long to change a rich diaper as a poor diaper. Secondly, no change over time in diaper time because it has not gotten any quicker to change diapers. So, those lines are flat and identical. But, the lines for “Goodnight Moon” time look like this, or rather, they look like this. They are up for everybody, but up much faster for kids coming from affluent homes, now about 45-minutes-a-day more “Goodnight Moon” time in affluent homes. And, that’s really important because of what we now know about brain development in infants—I am going to just assert it as a fact, although I am happy to talk more about it—we now know that the infant brain does not develop like a mushroom in the dark, gradually growing of itself. The human brain grows through social interaction. The human brain develops through what’s called serve-and-response. That is, the infant elicits some signal like “woo woo” and some nearby adult says “awww” and then the baby responds with “woo woo” and the adult says, “Isn’t that sweet?” That verbal ping pong, we now know, triggers brain development. If you don’t have it, the brain doesn’t develop as rapidly. So, there are real consequences for the fact that there is this growing “Goodnight Moon” gap between rich kids and poor kids, sometimes, phrased in terms of the 30-million-words gap—the kid from an educated home hears 30 million more words by the time she or he gets to school.

There is a growing gap in test scores—you probably know Sean Reardon’s work—the growing gap in test scores between kids coming from affluent backgrounds and kids coming from poor backgrounds. The growing gap means the difference, the average difference, between the test scores of people coming from lower in the economic hierarchy and kids going higher in the economic hierarchy is growing, that’s what I mean. That’s another one of those scissors gaps.

There’s a scissors gap in terms of the quality of schools kids go to, largely because, and I want to come back to this later, but largely because of the growing class segregation of American society so rich kids are more likely now to go to school with other rich kids, and poor kids are more likely to go to school with other poor kids. And, that has a lot of consequence, I mean a ton of consequences.

There is a growing gap in terms of the amount of social support that kids get outside the family. And, that’s important because almost all of us who do well in life do well because we had social support outside our immediate family, and that’s still true for those of us who are on the upside of this opportunity gap. But, it is not true…For example, church attendance is down a lot more among working-class kids than it is among middle-class kids. And, I am not worried about that theologically. I am worried about it because churches are communities where somebody outside the family can pay attention to the kid in youth groups or whatever; MYF or something. That used to be really important for working-class kids and is now less available to working-class kids, so the most important… How are we doing on time?

Michael Petrilli:              

You’re good. Not at a Harvard professor level yet.

Robert Putnam:               

Okay. The most important single fact about poor kids in America today, it seems to me as we look at the evidence, both the quantitative evidence, and what I have ignored here is all…We have interviewed roughly a hundred rich and poor families all over America. And, we know a lot about these kids—we described it in the book—a lot about these rich kids and poor kids and what you can see in every single one of the poor kids…We didn’t cherry-pick these; these are just kids. Actually, on average, the well-being and the achievements of the kids…the poor kids in our story are actually, on average, a little bit better than the total because essentially all of our poor kids, that look like these disasters, they all have gotten at least a GED. But, we know that among poor families, a third of kids don’t even get a GED, so we are entirely missing the worst-off third in American society. I say that because some people think I cherry-picked to get the worst possible cases. That just isn’t true. There are a lot of really terribly-off poor kids in America, of all races, and the most common feature is that they are alone. They can’t trust anybody. They can’t trust their families. They can’t trust their schools. They can’t trust their schools, I mean, their churches; they can’t trust anybody. And, that shows up in levels of trust and levels of cynicism that are just frightening, frankly. Only about 10% of poor kids say you can trust other people.

Mary Sue, who is one of the poor kids in the book that comes from my hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, posted on Facebook not long ago, “Love hurts, trust kills.” Just think for a moment about what it means to be growing up in an environment in which you can’t trust anybody. Or, as another one of our kids, a young woman in our sample, this time a black woman from Atlanta said to us, “Baby, don’t trust anybody including especially your own family. Just don’t trust anybody.”

So, think what that means…and it didn’t use to be this way. That’s part of the story I am telling. It didn’t use to be that poor kids were so socially isolated from all of us, and that has many, many consequences.

So, why did all this happen? It happened for a number of reasons. First of all, the collapse of the working class family. I talked a little bit about that, and I am happy to talk about it more. This is a case…this is one corner of a much larger issue which is, “Can people from different partisan or ideological backgrounds have a civil discussion about this?”

I am assuming that we can, maybe against the evidence. The reason I say that is because I think the evidence…I am a progressive…and I think the evidence is that, first of all, there has been a collapse of the working-class family, black and white, and that it is bad for kids. But, there is a presidential candidate who yesterday quoted me as saying that “all black men are sexual predators.” I am not going to say who it is, but what I am trying to say is, he took what I was saying—he’s a conservative—he took what I was saying, and sort of SO misinterpreted it, that it is nothing like…it isn’t even in the universe of what I said. But that’s an example of how, at least this one guy, was, in effect, taking advantage of the fact that I was trying to be open. He says isn’t it amazing that this is liberal—actually, he said “extreme leftist”—at Harvard, acknowledges that blah, blah, blah. I am partly expressing my frustration because it is going to be really hard for us to have an open, factual, or fact-based, bipartisan conversation if we are not fair and honest to one another.

Nevertheless, the collapse of the working class family is a big deal. So is the general economic, the growth of this economic gap; the fact that working class families have not had a real wage…working class men at least, have not had a real raise in thirty or forty years. That has real consequences. Did all these people knew I was a Harvard professor before I got here? You knew that, right?

So you knew, I assume you knew, that it is not easy to be a Harvard professor. You have to pass a lot of tests to be a Harvard professor. The most important of which is, you have to pass a test in name dropping. So, I am now about to convince you that I am a legitimate Harvard professor. So, a few years ago, I was at the White House talking to the president and his wife and the cabinet…did that work?

Michael Petrilli:              

Very impressive.

Robert Putnam:               

This is actually not the current president, it was his predecessor. I was talking to George W. Bush and his family. And that president invited me there to talk about other stuff, and I did. But, then I thought, “I don’t get a chance to talk to the president that often so I’ll tell him about my scissors graphs, which I really was beginning to get mesmerized by all these scissors graphs. And, to his great credit and to my—I am embarrassed to say this—to my surprise, he cared a lot about this. I thought, you know, he’s a conservative. He’s not going to care much about it. He cared a lot about it.

And, of course, if you ask, “why did he?”, it’s because, going back to the very first thing I said, if I were right, if I am right in claiming that there is this growing gap, that goes to the heart of the legitimacy of the American system. That is, a notion that everybody ought to get a fair, decent chance. And, if I am right, that isn’t true. And, so he instantly recognized the importance of it, and he said, “what’s going on here?” He called it Putnam’s gap. “What’s causing Putnam’s gap?” And he said…his first question was the right first question…he said, “How much of this is due to differences in family structure?”, which was the right first question. I said, “Probably about a third, roughly speaking. I don’t want to get too technical about it, but it looked to me about a third of the growth of the gap was due to that.” He said, “what else is going on here?” I was stumbling around and I was trying to figure out quite how to tell him that I thought the growing income gap and the increasing out-of-kilter tax system I thought might be part of it, but I was trying to figure out how to say that in a polite way to the guy who just altered the tax code in certain ways. To my great relief, his wife, Laura Bush, interrupted me, and interrupted him, and turned to him and said, “George, just think about it. If you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your house, and you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your job, you just have less energy to invest in the kids.”

And I said, “Bingo.” I didn’t say bingo there, but I said to myself, “She’s right.” She’s caught the connection between the growing income gap in America and the growing opportunity gap. And, in my research group, we call that the Laura Bush hypothesis, and she is right. I think you can see the data…in the data…that she’s right.

There are other, deeper causes. Part of the cause is actually the growing social segregation of American society. We have become a less segregated society over the last thirty or forty years in racial terms; a less segregated society in religious terms, for sure. But, we have become a more segregated society in social class terms. We are less likely to live near people of a different class background; our kids are less likely to go to schools with kids from a different class background than was true a generation or two ago. And, we are less likely to intermarry across class backgrounds than we were a generation or two ago. It is actually worth pausing and saying, actually intermarriage rates are a really interesting indicator of social change, especially among youngish people, fundamentally because we tend not to marry people that we have not met…That was a joke. Don’t you do jokes here?

Michael Petrilli:              

Sometimes education is very serious, I guess. […]

Robert Putnam:               

What I mean by that is, simply, if intermarriage rates go up, say religious intermarriage rates are going way up; racial marriage rates are actually going up a lot. What that means is people of marriageable age are more likely to have met someone across that boundary, and, therefore, on average marriage rates have gone up. The decline of intermarriage across class boundaries is a marker of the fact that people in their adolescent years and twenties and thirties are less likely to have met someone across that class boundary.

This growing social segregation, not just residential but including residential, has really basic, deep consequences for America. It has deep consequences, in part, because it affects who goes to school with other people, but also because it means that now, less than a generation ago, people on the upside of the gap are actually less likely to have any personal knowledge of conditions on the downside of the economic gap.

The reason there are so many stories in my book is, in part, that I want to show…most readers are going to be on the upside of my gap…and I want to say to them…and most of them are very well-intentioned people…I want to say, “do you realize actually how bad things have gotten among poor kids? It is different from when…,” I want to say to people, certainly people of my age…”it’s different from when we were growing up. It’s just different.”

But, as I say…this is the title of the book, I think the most important underlying cause of this transformation…it is true that growth of income inequality and the growth of class segregation are important, broader, structural conditions that have contributed to this, along with changes in norms that have led, or morals you might say, that have led to the collapse of the working-class family…The underlying thing, I think, is that when my parents and their generation…I grew up in the fifties in a small town in Ohio called Port Clinton, Ohio…it was the first chapter of the book…When my parents and their peers used the expression “our kids”…We got to do some things for our kids. We got to have a bond issue so that our kids can have a pool, a swimming pool at high school or French department or whatever…They did not mean my sister and me. That is, they felt responsible for all the kids on town and the evidence of that was they kept doing that, they kept campaigning for bond issues long after my sister and I were all gone. Why? Their taxes were going to go up. Why would they do that? Because they thought they had some responsibility for all the kids in town.

But, what’s happened over the last thirty or forty years, and this is related to the book called Bowling Alone…I didn’t think of it at the time…but, it is related to that. There has been a shriveling of our sense of connection and responsibility for other people. We’ve become more self, individually, focused over this period, and the consequence is, when people talk about “our kids” now, they mean, “my biological kids.”

If you go back to Port Clinton, my hometown, and talk to people there about poor kids, real poor kids in town…if they have even noticed that there are these poor kids in town…they are very likely to say, “Mary Sue; she’s not one of our kids, she’s somebody else’s kid. Let them worry about her. And, that transformation, I think, is an underlying cultural change that reflects the fact that we have been through a big swing over my lifetime, basically, a big swing away from a sense of shared citizenship and shared responsibility towards a sense of individualism.

The pendulum in American history goes back and forth between extreme individuals and extreme emphasis on sharing and caring, but ever since I personally started to vote…this is the causal relationship…ever since I personally started to vote, America has been going to hell in a handbasket, and moving sharply in this other direction. I think that’s really bad, and I think it is going to be hard to fix the problem of the opportunity gap unless we can overcome that challenge.

And, indeed, although I am happy to talk about policy fixes and policy wonkery here…I know that’s what we are supposed to talk about and I am happy to do that…I actually, fundamentally, don’t think this is a problem about policy wonkery. I think we could have a decent discussion if we all were open and honest and fact-based. We have a fact-based discussion about, is this more likely to do it, or is that more likely to do it? I think if we have a national conversation which, maybe with luck we are going to have, about the opportunity gap, people will differ about what policies work. A presidential candidate, yesterday, in New Hampshire, was asked about the opportunity gap, actually, because somebody up in New Hampshire read my book, and asked him about the opportunity gap. He said the best way to fix the opportunity gap was to lower the corporate tax rate. Well, maybe that’s the right answer. No, maybe that’s the right answer, but does that seem right to you? That that’s the way to narrow the opportunity gap? Let’s have a debate about that, right? I think I want to have a fact-based debate, and that’s not where I would put my money…I mean it’s not where I would guess is the right way to do it, but maybe.

But, that fact-based discussion we can’t begin to have unless people recognize that this is a problem. And, so the first issue, and this is the main point of the book, is not to…I mean I am happy to talk about policy solutions, either would-be or actual policy solutions…but actually, the reason I wrote the book was not that. It was to try to get this issue on the national agenda so we pay attention to it.

Now, despite all that, I am actually really optimistic. I realize that now, after I heard a lot of feedback about the book, that actually most people hear accounts of the book or maybe read the book and hear extreme pessimism.  I mean this is just awful. I do think it’s awful. But, also I am not extremely pessimistic for the following reason: I know American history decently well, and I know that America has confronted exactly the same set of problems earlier in our history very much like a period we are in now and we have fixed it.

So, I want to tell you that just in conclusion, that little bit of history, which is in the book but isn’t given as much prominence as I would now give it if I were rewriting the book…the period at the end of 19th century, the so-called Gilded Age, was the last time the gap between the rich and poor was as great in America as it is now. It was really big, right? This is the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts and all…well actually the Vanderbilts’ money came earlier…it was lot of really rich folks, the robber barrons and a lot of really poor folks, most of whom were immigrants and “of a different race,” that’s what we said at that time. “Different race” meant they were Italians or Irish and Jews, and we paint-face people…my family has been here since 1640…and we say all these other races are coming here and they are discombobulating everybody…that is another parallel between then and now…Then, and now of course, there was a great sense of political alienation and political frustration because the parties were not responding to what many people thought were the real challenges facing America, and there was very pervasive political corruption and huge domination of politics by money. The Pennsylvania Railroad owned the Pennsylvania’s Senate, the state Senate, literally owned…everybody there had been bought and paid for, and they knew it. Similarly, with respect to the Montana state legislature and the mining industry. So, if that sounds vaguely familiar, there you are; and a sense also because the political philosophy of the time of what was called “social Darwinism.”

Social Darwinism said the best way for this society to progress is for everybody to be selfish. I am not making that up. That’s what it was. Everybody is selfish and the devil take the hindmost and we will all, not necessarily all progress, but those of us who deserve to progress, will progress. Therefore, to help people who weren’t doing so well, was actually to be contrary to the society interest, because it is helping these people who are not fit to keep up. If you think I’m making it up, go back and read the social gospel. I am not making that up.

A lot of other parallels between that time and this time. And, then, pretty quickly, as these things go, America changed it. A lot of basic reforms in American society came out of the last decade of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century...child labor laws; and hours and wages regulations; and a whole bunch of things…as well as campaign finance reform, actually. The first basic campaign finance reforms were all formulated then. Those are the laws, the very laws that now have just been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Michael Petrilli:              

Alright, we are getting into Harvard professor territory here. Here we go.

Robert Putnam:

Okay. So, the single best example of this, and I am conscious of the time…the single best example was the invention of the U.S. high school. The initial high school…I don’t know how many…you are all experts in education, so you probably know that God did not invent the high school, social reformers did. In small towns in Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa…I am asking you to think what that meant. It meant that rich farmers and bankers and lawyers in those small towns had to agree to pay higher taxes so that other people’s kids could get secondary education, when their kids were certain to get a secondary education anyhow because they had been going to private high schools. And, that was the best single decision America ever made, because it raised the overall human capital of America and, the economic historians say, most of the American economic growth in the 20th century for all of us came out of that decision; massive increase in the quality of the American work force; and it leveled the playing field at the same time, so everybody was better off.

That, I think, I don’t know quite what the 21st century equivalent of the high school is…we can talk about that…I am leaving out a lot of the education stuff because we are going to talk about that, I know right now. But, the reason I am optimistic is because I know that change can occur pretty quickly. And, what were the ingredients in that earlier period? Part of it was simply recognizing how bad the situation had become.

So, a New York city journalist wrote a book called How the Other Half Lives, which basically was describing to the upper classes, the “silk stocking” districts of the Upper East Side, life in the tenements of the Lower East Side, and saying, “Look. Do you want to live in a society like that?” And, not everybody was shamed, but some people were shamed, actually, and it did lead to progress. I mention that, of course, because that’s the genre in which Our Kids is written. I don’t want to say that I will have the same effect, but that’s the genre in which Our Kids is written. And, there was also a lot of organizing that went on and some violence, and I am not trying to either predict or, certainly not trying to hope for violence, but you’ve got to realize, any of us who are looking at that period, have got to recognize that there was a lot of anxiety in the era about what was going to happen when the country became so divided. I don’t think we are in that situation now.

But, the most important thing is this. There was a national conversation in that period. That’s what we all know about. That is Teddy Roosevelt and Jane Adams and so on. The real inventions, the really important innovations of that period came not from Washington and not from Cambridge. They came from Toledo and Galveston and Sacramento and Madison and places out in the country and the process was one of which the national conversation gave oxygen to local reformers. The local reformers tried different ideas, some of which worked, some of which didn’t work. We know the ones that worked, like the high school. We don’t know the ones that didn’t work. That’s fine.

And, that’s what I think is going to happen now. That’s why I am optimistic. I think if we have a national debate about this issue, this next eighteen months, which I am now increasingly hopeful that we will have…maybe we won’t, but I think we may have a debate in the presidential election about how do we solve the opportunity gap. If we do, I do not expect that everyone is going to agree. Of course not. There is going to be debate about how to fix it. And, secondly, I don’t think that, even if we…imagine President X takes office in January with a congress completely ready to do his or her bidding, it’s not my ideal…expectation…that February 1 we’ll pass the law saying there’s now actual equal opportunity in America, and we can dust our hands and say, okay now we can turn to global warming or something else big. The best hope I have, but it is a serious hope, is that this national conversation we’re engaged in maybe, like this one, will give oxygen to people in places around America who will then begin collectively learning how we can begin to narrow this gap.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Michael Petrilli:              

Wow. Thank you, Professor. So much to dig into there. Let’s start with the values as you said. We will get to the policy wonk stuff a little bit later.

Robert Putnam:

Sure.

Michael Petrilli:              

If you read this book, you can’t walk away but heartbroken. You read these stories of kids born into these horrific situations and, as you say, they are not uncommon. And, kids born into neighborhoods that are broken, and families that are dysfunctional, and parents who just aren’t in a place in their life yet where they are ready to be able to give them all the care they need, and all kinds of challenges, right? From your previous work, you have described these…these are communities where there is not much social capital. And, so we read that, we, the rich, or we see what’s happened in Baltimore. And, we want to do something; we care about that. We do see those kids as “our kids,” but we don’t know what to do. And, we don’t live in Port Clinton anymore; we don’t live in a small town. We live in the suburbs, and they live over here. Or, maybe some of us live in a city, but we don’t necessarily know our neighbors that well. And, so, there have been some on the right who have criticized the book by saying, “Look, at the end, for the all the talk about social capital, your solution is basically: Therefore, we need to invest more money in government programs.”

What is it that we can do to actually stitch together the social fabric of these communities again? What can we do? Is it simply, as the president kept saying yesterday, investing in public goods like preschool? How do you answer that critique?

Robert Putnam:               

I am trying to figure out how to answer that critique at the same time that I answer the critique from the leftists who say all I want to do is straighten the family, and I am ignoring the important role the government ought to play. It feels to me a little bit like they have not read the same book or, alternatively…actually I know more reviews that were critical from the left, that I acknowledge our family dysfunctionalities, here than I have critiques from the right who have said that I am a big state liberal. I think this is both, and I honestly do…and I think we got…the problem is, this is a purple problem. There are parts of this problem you can understand most clearly if you look at the problem through red conservative lenses. That is, you see the collapse of the working-class family and that, I think, is just fact. The conservatives are more likely to see that and that’s a big problem. I don’t quite know how to fix it…I made a deal once with Paul Ryan that if he could fix the family collapse part of the problem, I would fix the economic structural problem. Because, there are parts of this problem you could see most clearly through blue progressive lenses. You can see the collapse of those factories in Port Clinton that lead to the breakdown of families there.

I would love to have some ideas about how to address the collapse of social capital and especially the collapse of family social capital. I mean I really would. When we convened my group after the book…we are in the midst of convening a set of working groups on various baskets of possible solutions…we convened one on family structure, and we had people from different sorts of backgrounds, and actually liberals and conservatives in the group all agree this is a problem but we don’t quite know how to fix it. George W. Bush tried the Marital Initiatives and, to his great credit, they did evaluations of them and evaluations are that it’s hard for government to do anything about that part of the problem. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it. I think that not all problems have government solutions. I think some of them have social or cultural solutions. And, I wish I could figure out a way in which we could encourage guys not to walk away from the results of their procreation. That’s the short version.

The reason I phrase it that way is because my daughter is a very distinguished feminist historian, and she tells me that, regardless of my own views here and regardless of the book, the narrative, the metanarrative in Western culture about fallen women and how they are responsible for everything is so powerful that nothing I can do can prevent this book from being interpreted eventually as saying fallen women are the source of all our problems. I do not believe that for one second. I am trying to name the problem so you don’t think that’s what I am saying. But, there is an issue there, not about women’s morals but about guys’ morals and that’s changed and I don’t quite know how to fix it. I am not at all saying that’s a government…a big government program is going to do that.

But, on the other hand, I also think that, and here I do agree with the president actually, we have disinvested. We’ve privatized a lot of things. The clearest case is the example, and I am now just repeating what I said yesterday when he talked, this obscene example… We know that extracurricular activities work. Extracurricular activities were invented in American schools, by social reformers, for the purpose of training kids in what we now call soft skills. That is what they were trying to do. They were trying to teach people character, and stick-to-it-iveness, and teamwork, and so on, and it worked. For three quarters of the 20th century, all of our kids, in all the schools, were getting free football and free band and free chorus and all that. Why? Because we recognized that all of us had an obligation. Just as we had an obligation for free public schools, we had an obligation to try to teach those soft skills. They were important for the kids to work on, and that there were externalities. This is a public good that everybody has those skills.

Now, beginning about twenty years ago, we started charging kids for those…to take part. You know about pay-to-play? Pay-to-play basically says we are going to privatize learning soft skills, and that has the inevitable effect that privatizing learning soft skills meant that parents who could afford to put their kids in extracurricular activities paid for it and more. They paid for soccer teams, or whatever they call it, travelling soccer teams, and extra piano lessons and all that stuff. And, poor kids didn’t.

So I don’t see any way….I think that…I don’t think America turns on whether or not we make, once again, extracurricular activities free, but I do think that it turns on thinking about the consequences, differential consequences for rich kids and poor kids of privatizing everything.

Michael Petrilli:              

And, this is an issue that has not gotten any air time in the education reform conversation. In fact, there are some reformers—I won’t call her out, but she has a book out from a couple of years ago…Amanda…Ripley, but that even argue that, hey we should actually get rid of sports in high school because there is too much of a focus, the Friday Night Lights in American high schools, and that if we want to be more like Finland or these other high performers, we should make high school just academic. And yet, then we end up saying how can we use math class to teach creativity.

I mean, it’s all, kind of, crazy. When people come from overseas, and they say, how do you do such a great job creating people who are innovative and free thinkers and challenge authority and have confidence and leadership? We say, don’t look at how we’re teaching math, go check out what’s happening after school. That’s the secret sauce of American education. And yet, we hardly ever talk about it.

You have a section in the book, probably about 10 pages long, where you go through and you talk about education, different things that we can do around education to address this problem. It’s certainly not all the things that you name, but it’s a big chunk of them. Tell us…try to prioritize a little bit for us. If we were going to do one or two things in the world of education to fix this problem, what are they?

Robert Putnam:               

Let me say, first of all, I didn’t realize, even after I had written this book, I did not realize that I had stumbled into the midst of the education wars. That shows how ignorant I was in this field. It is only after I wrote the book and was talking to some friends who were themselves active education reformers…they were on the charter school, et cetera, side of that debate…and they were sympathetic to my argument. But they said, you stumbled into the midst of this stuff and so I am still feeling my way in a minefield that I don’t yet quite understand. Maybe that’s this afternoon.

Michael Petrilli:              

We would be happy if you say nice things about charter schools here.

Robert Putnam:               

Rich kids bring different things to school than poor kids do. And, the rich kids bring these parental resources in their backpack and they bring parental aspirations and they bring a lot of other good things, and it helps kids, no matter what their own personal economic background, to be going to school with those kids. And, poor kids bring other things in their backpack. They bring gang violence and family dysfunction and so on. Those things are bad for their fellow students and the increasing concentration of kids in either low-income or high-income schools has really important consequence.

I actually don’t think…and I know there are people on both sides of this issue, probably in this room…I don’t think that differential funding is a major part of the problem. I do think that, in order to fix the problem, we can either…look, if I am right…then it is mostly about sorting; the problem is mostly driven by sorting of people into the rich families and poor families. And, I’m just going to lay out my argument and then you guys can come back, because I understand there are people in the room who have lots of expertise and maybe have different opinions, but I see it mostly is about sorting. You can either move the family so you somehow mix families up. That’s not so easy to figure out how to do that. Or, you can move the kids, that’s busing, only now for class reasons and not for racial reasons and that might work, but we all know the difficulties of that political and otherwise. Or, you can move the money and I think moving the money is probably the right thing. I think, we do need to invest a lot more in poor schools not just more Title I funding, but money that is focused on getting the best high quality teachers in those schools.

And, I read the TTI experiment…can I jump into jargon? Do you know what I mean by the TTI…the TTI is this experiment that’s been done in the last five years in which districts have paid teachers a lot more, the top teachers in the district a lot more to go and teach in the lowest income schools in that district. And, I read the evidence from that as being…it is random assignment stuff so it is serious evaluations…the evaluations are pretty positive, that is if you pay teachers a lot more, top teachers will go teach in low income schools. They will stay there and their kids will do better in test scoring. So, I think that’s…I would want to spend more money on schools.

A lot of Title I money is wasted, so I am not trying to say just more Title I money, but I do think that if we focused on…we know that teacher quality…this is your stuff more than mine…we know that teacher quality makes a difference and we can try to get our best teachers into those schools even though…because we want to overcome teacher flight. And, I think teacher flight is a big part of the story here. I wouldn’t want to teach in these...there was somebody here, maybe a lot of people, but there are a number of you who actually teach in those schools…I think that it’s marvelous that you are, but I just think it’s gotta be really hard to keep, systematically, lots of top quality teachers.

Michael Petrilli:              

It is hard to get a cushier teaching assignment than Harvard probably.

Robert Putnam:               

Yeah, right.

Michael Petrilli:              

Though we won’t hold that against you.

Robert Putnam:               

Thank you, I am glad.

Michael Petrilli:              

All right. So, desegregation, though you had the knowledge, you had Rick Kallenberg until you gave the caveats that it was hard to do politically, but we’re spending more money. Let’s get back to the college question I raised at the beginning. You, in this book, define upper-middle class as college-educated and you define, basically, low-income or working class as high school educated or below, so, at first, I start reading the book and think, oh no, he is basically endorsing this view that it’s all about a four-year college degree. And, yet you get to the education section of your book and you do, in fact, raise some questions about the college for all.

Robert Putnam:               

Oh, on the contrary. I am not a college-for-all kind of person.

Michael Petrilli:              

Right, you raised some questions. How do we think about this? Should we be much more focused on career and technical education, for example, than we have been?

Robert Putnam:               

Well, look. The answer is yes, but in the array of solutions that (A) I talked about in the book, but (B) more important, the solutions in these follow-on working groups that I talked about were focusing on this issue of a technical apprenticeship programs or technical training or, I don’t want to call it shop but that’s what in my day it was called, or community colleges. All those things…many of them, I don’t want to say all those things…but you can find examples of that technical education that would work well and that would help kids as an on-ramp.

You are going to look at stuff being done in Georgia on technical apprenticeship education. You can look at stuff being done in community colleges. The community colleges…but this is another case where I think you need to pay a lot of attention to, actually, the circumstances of kids. Everybody in this room, I am sure, knows that the real problem with community colleges is this abysmal graduation rate. What was it nationally? 15 percent or something like 10 percent…something like that. What is the number?

Audience Member:       

10 percent.

Robert Putnam:               

10 percent, okay. I applaud the president’s initiative to try to make it free for everybody but actually it is not mostly about money. It is mostly about the fact that these…I go back to the thing…these kids are really isolated. So, I am going to talk about a particular young woman in Santa Ana, California, that we talk about in the book who, through some miracle actually, an angel appears from heaven right and says he will pay for her complete secondary education so the money is zero object here. She does have a high school degree that she got through continuation school, which is sort of like a GED, because the school, the actual high school she was in was unbelievably bad, but she is qualified now for community college, and she’s got the money for community college. And, she knows zero about community college. She does not…she is enrolled in one and she does not know whether it is a two-year or a four-year program. She knows what she wants to do. She has some particular career goals in mind. She does not even know if that college offers instruction in that field. You could say, how could that possibly be? I mean, how could she not know that simple thing? And, the answer is: That’s what it means to be completely socially isolated. You have no adults in your life who are saying, you probably have to take that course or have you thought about this. Even if an adult didn’t know the right answer they would say go and pound on the desk until you…

My wife works as a mentor with a young woman who is getting ready to go to community college. She went to the community college. Community college was a little standoff-ish and my wife did what we would tell all of our kids to do…show them how to do. You don’t get rude; you don’t get angry, but you keep insisting and pushing and getting the right answer. That’s the kind of coaching and mentoring and counseling that our kids get lots of without our even intending to do that. They just live around us, but that’s unavailable to poor kids.

So, I actually do think that we can do a lot more with community colleges, but I would put a lot more money and energy into trying to figure out how to provide the support facilities for these. Support facilities is not quite the right word…support for these.

Michael Petrilli:              

And, there are some good efforts going on. Complete College America and many other groups are working on trying to make that community college experience much more cohesive. Somebody on Twitter mentioned that, when we were putting this question of how do we get more poor kids around wealthier kids, and you talk about the different options, there is this other option which is school choice, right? That you see in some cities that, either via charter schools or via vouchers, there are some opportunities for low-income kids to get into schools that are predominantly upper-middle class and that that could be another part of the solution.

Robert Putnam:               

Okay, so here is where I think…

Michael Petrilli:              

This is your chance to be purple now. Come on, you can just say yes to that, Professor.

Robert Putnam:

I want to be fact-based actually and honestly …

Michael Petrilli:              

True facts, as you said yesterday.

Robert Putnam:               

Yeah. I am not an educational researcher, but I have read a lot of this stuff. And I think that there are some charter schools, and I name them in the book, that demonstrably narrow the gap. That’s great. There are a number of other charter schools that, by many measures, are doing a fine job, but frankly there are a number of public schools that are doing a great job. I am sorry, not charters, choice…I’m on the choice issue, which is related to charters, but it is not the same thing as charters.

As I read the evidence on choice, the problem is that, for the same reason that Mary Sue’s parents or all these poor kids’ parents…that is they don’t have any adults in their lives. The idea, this romantic idea frankly, that there are a lot of poor parents who actually know what they want to do, they just can’t get the kids in the right schools is just not true. So, rich parents, affluent or educated parents, are much more likely to be able to make use of the opportunities that are made available in choice and, that, partly because of their savvy, but partly because of their transportation.

I am not trying to make a universal claim here, but I am trying to say that unless you are really careful, choice itself is not going to help close the gap. Choice may help some kids get to better schools, but it’s helping at least as many rich kids get to better schools as poor kids get to better schools. I am saying this so you could come back at me, you are much more expert in this than I am, but I read that literature open-mindedly, and I came to the conclusion that choice is not a panacea and that some charter schools are doing a terrific job but others aren’t doing a terrific job, and maybe you have to look at what the ones that are doing a terrific job are doing, rather than just saying charter schools. You come back at me now.

Michael Petrilli:              

Oh sure. And, we will get you some of the literature to see that. First of all, it is fair to say, the best research now from Stanford’s CREDO center and others are now showing that charter schools, by-and-large are outperforming district schools, particularly in urban areas, right? And, those are charter schools that predominantly serve poor and minority kids. They are matched in very sophisticated ways against similar traditional district schools and that those charter schools are making progress. That was not always the case. But, in the last several years we are starting to really see the charter schools making gains. But, you are totally right that if you are not careful school choice could exacerbate some of these challenges. Many places…vouchers, for example, in many places are limited to low-income kids so that helps. There is also a lot of effort in education reform to make sure that we get good information to low-income parents. There is effort here in DC where people are knocking on doors in Anacostia and giving information to parents and that’s helping.

Robert Putnam:

I am sorry and I am open to evidence so I really am open to evidence but …

Michael Petrilli:              

We will send you.

Robert Putnam:               

But wait, keep in mind the real situation of these poor families, is not just that nobody has thrust the information in their hand. They don’t have any of the contextual information designed. There is no…I went over this very carefully when I was about to write this following sentence, then I went back over all of our poor cases…None of the poor kids in our study would have been improved if they had given better information about schools, because they don’t know how to process it. Their parents don’t know how to process it. Even if they did, they don’t know how to get to those schools. That’s anecdotal. That’s our kids, my kids, my poor kids. I think…my general understanding that has come out of this work about the life situations of poor families is that we shouldn’t assume that all they need is a little more information. They need a ton of more information.

Michael Petrilli:              

Absolutely.

Robert Putnam:               

And, getting the ton more information is probably not the top thing on their agenda. They are trying to survive. So, we shouldn’t imagine that we have model parents in these poor kids.

Michael Petrilli:              

And, this raises…this is the heart of the issue and it’s a value issue, which is this. If you have programs and initiatives like charter schools or school vouchers, or let’s say in a regular district school, opportunities to take honors or AP classes, tracking, and we are talking about in high poverty schools, and they are going to benefit poor kids but they may be the poor kids whose families have it a little more together. They got it together enough to know about those opportunities and apply for that.

Robert Putnam:

Right.

Michael Petrilli:              

In the suburbs, where I live, where many of us live, those opportunities still exist, right? So if you are a high-achieving, rich kid, you get access to AP, you get access to honors. And, yet we turn around and say, but in the inner-city we don’t want to do tracking. We don’t want to provide those opportunities to the, as you said before, the high-achieving poor kids because it is unfair to their poor peers. That, somehow, we are advantaging some poor kids over other poor kids.

Why can’t we say, look, we are talking about kids who are all coming from very difficult circumstances and if some of these initiatives help kids who, by any measure, they are low-income, but their parents are behaving in a way that’s responsible enough to get them into these initiatives. That’s a good thing. We should encourage that. We should celebrate that. Why do we have to make the priority the absolute hardest, toughest cases all the time?

Robert Putnam:               

Well, you’re quoting an argument that actually, surely I didn’t make and I don’t even recognize. I am not saying that there aren’t people who have argued that, that we shouldn’t have AP courses in poor schools. Actually, I don’t remember anybody saying you shouldn’t have …

Michael Petrilli:              

They definitely say we should not track. Everybody should be mixed in together because tracking is …

Robert Putnam:               

No, and you’ve heard me say. I don’t think tracking is relevant to this debate honestly, so I’m not…one of the virtues or vices of wandering into this field is I don’t know all the positions that all the players have had. I don’t. I’m sorry. You just have to live with that.

Michael Petrilli:              

But, what if charter school doesn’t…it helps poor kids but not the absolute toughest cases, is that still okay?

Robert Putnam:               

I want to see…you’re going to show me the evidence that compared to other public schools, on average, charter schools narrow the gap. The evidence I’ve seen is not consistent with that, but I am not saying that you are wrong. It is just that I don’t know that evidence. It’s not that…Do I want to help poor kids? Yes. Do I want to help as many poor kids as possible? Yes. So if that means I am willing to help some poor kids and not others, yes, but it doesn’t mean that I am willing to write off the poor kids whose parents don’t have it together because they’re our kids too. In a way, they are the worst off kids. And, so we shouldn’t act as though, well we’re going to do the equivalent of the Titanic and we are going to pick out the lucky ones and say the others ones, well too bad. I don’t say you’re saying that. But, I’m saying we need not just to do triage and save only the poor kids whose parents happen to be…have it together. I would rather have reforms like, I think putting more high quality teachers in low income schools, that are less likely to just help the poor kids whose parents unexpectedly have it together.

Michael Petrilli:              

We could go on for so long, but we have a hard stop in just five minutes, so let me get one question. Who has the best question? I mean it is a great question. It is not a speech. It can’t be a speech. It is a question. All right we’re going to get the microphone to you in just a minute. Tell us who you are and ask your awesome fantastic question. Here it comes. Yes?

Audience Member:       

Hi. My name is Pam Conde. My question is, if we have purple problem, can we have a purple answer? And, you talked about high quality teachers, investing in afterschool…if we invested in programs that enrich kids and inspire kids and help mediate them and also cover contraception, so they delay childbearing, what role does the local community, the bully pulpit, the federal representatives, as well, need to take in saying, we are going to also buy in as a community. We are going to make sure that education is the number one thing; that deferring childbirth is number one; we are going to also take responsibility for our community; that sort of purple part of it.

Robert Putnam:               

Remember, as I said in my…I basically…I am not a Catholic but I like this subsidiarity idea—that is, you have to solve the problem at the lowest level you can solve it, and there are some problems you can’t solve at the local level, right? So, we need to have redistribution across different areas, but some problems you can solve, you can make serious progress at the local level and I think that’s where they ought to begin. That does not mean you don’t do compensatory funding across levels and so on, I mean across rich districts and poor districts, but it does mean…I want to have the responsibility placed clearly as close as I can to the problem.

And, I think…I would love to have competitions among school districts for narrowing opportunity gap. I think, actually, that would be a really interesting test and by the opportunity gap I do not just mean that the racial achievement gap. I am not dismissing the importance of the racial achievement gap people are focused on, but that’s not the only part of this gap. This is not just about races. It is about social class. That is another controversial issue that we haven’t talked about.

I want to say just one last word because we have not talked about it and yet I think it is the most important part of education, in this context I mean, and that is early childhood education. I think the evidence there is really strong, and I think, for my money, the 21st century equivalent of the high school; that is, the thing that we could do…it would be costly but it would work…is universal or, at least, lots of early childhood education. And, I know all the debate…actually, I think I do know all the debate, about whether Head Start works or not…my bottom line from all of that, and I’m doing this quickly because you got the ticking clock, is high quality, expensive early childhood education does work, and it has a very high pay off. So it’s an investment; it is really an investment.

And, that’s what the high schools were. High schools were not cheap and early child education, done well, is not cheap. I advised school districts that we were going to try to do it on the cheap. Don’t do it. Don’t just have glorified babysitting. It’s not worth the money you are going to spend on it. But, high quality and we know, I mean, we can cite the studies in Boston and elsewhere that show high quality early childhood education and this is not just Ypsilanti, not just the high scope 1960s stuff. A lot of recent stuff shows that early childhood education does work and we are ought to be doing it everywhere. I can’t tell if that’s a purple solution or not, because the best, most comprehensive place, state in the country, as you know is the reddest of the red. It is a little unfortunate, in a way, politically, that Obama came out in favor of what is a really good idea because that meant that forty percent of the country decided it must be a really bad idea.

Michael Petrilli:              

Some of us have experience with other issues like that, like Common Core.

Robert Putnam:               

Yeah, right.

Michael Petrilli:              

You will be happy to know on the purple issue front we have a study coming out soon that looks at whether charter schools have access to public preschool funds so that they can provide preschool, maybe that’s a nice combination to get the left and right together. One last question, I can’t help it because there’s this great Nick Lemann review of your book. Again, the argument from the left being, Putnam doesn’t pay enough attention to these changes in economics and that, basically, the jobs aren’t going to be there.

So, for the people in this room, and in education reform, we are all trying to build up the human capital and social capital of young people, in part, so that they can go out and they can be successful. They can get a job. They can make a middle class living. They can support a family. I mean, if we succeed and if we get better at that, are those young people, are there going to be opportunities for them in this economy, do you think?

Robert Putnam:               

I do think that. I was not trying to write a book about the future of the American economy. I was trying to write a future of American kids, and, of course, there is, invariably a supply side and demand side. There is a supply side of kids, and there is a demand side of the economy. Of course, we ought to worry about that. There are too many reviewers of this book that, actually, are really upset that I didn’t write their book. And, I know that’s a complaint of an author always, but, for example, there was a reviewer that was really unhappy that I didn’t explain why income inequality had grown and the answer is this: There are a dozen books about why income inequality has grown. I wanted to find out what the consequences of that were for kids.

I don’t think that this book is going to solve all problems. It is not going to tell us whether we should be in favor or opposed to the transpacific partnership. I was talking to a democratic congressperson this morning…she was really really…this person was extremely complementary about my book and her conclusion was that, therefore, I ought to be against the transpacific partnership.

Michael Petrilli:              

Was her first name Elizabeth? Just go ahead and tell us.

Robert Putnam:               

It was not my senior senator from Massachusetts, who is really smarter than that actually. She would be opposing the thing but she wouldn’t think that was the solution to this problem. We can have a debate about free trade. All I am trying to say is that’s not what this book is about. It is about how to prepare American kids, give them a more equal chance, and I just have to emphasize this because I am not trying to make America, Sweden. I am trying to make America, America, more like what we have done before. Investing large sums of money in other people’s kids is not bizarre. That’s what we have done most of our…and we benefit enormously from that. So, I am not frightened by people saying, you want to spend more money and have a big state. Yeah, if the big state means having a high school, I am all in favor of that. If a big state means having high quality daycare, I am in favor of that because it is an investment in all of our kids.

Michael Petrilli:              

Well, those book reviewers may have had complaints but we have no complaints. Thank you very much, Robert Putnam. Please join me in thanking him. As I said before, Professor Putnam will sign books outside. If you have enjoyed today, please tell your friends and family and colleagues to watch the replays of the video. Thank you again for joining us.

Robert Putnam:               

Thank you very much.

Michael Petrilli:              

Thank you. That was fantastic. Really appreciate it.