Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

“Robert D. Putnam is technically a Harvard social scientist, but a better description might be poet laureate of civil society,” a book review in the Sunday New York Times says. The review is of Putnam’s latest book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”

Putnam’s book examines the inequality gap in the United States, drawing on both Putnam’s personal experiences and his academic research.

Putnam explains his work in an interview with PBS’ NewsHour, touching on a range of topics including poverty, persistent achievement gaps, and early education.

Here’s a selection of quotes from that interview. The bold emphasis is ours.

“America’s best investment ever, in the whole history of our country, was to invest in the public high school and secondary school at the beginning of the 20th century. It dramatically raised the growth rate of America because it was a huge investment in human capital. The best economic analyses now say that investment in the public high schools in 1910 accounted for all of the growth of the American economy between then and about 1970. That huge investment paid off for everybody. Everybody in America had a higher income.” 

“Americans like to blame everything on the public school system. K-12 is not the cause of the growing opportunity gap. It may not be doing enough to close the gap, but the causes of the gap lie outside the schools. They lie in families and in communities and in the rest of society, and we’re asking schools to narrow that gap… Actually, the best evidence suggests that we should be investing in really early childhood education, and that the earlier the better, because the evidence shows that there is a very high rate of return.”

Early childhood education is an area in which some of the most interesting work is being done in the deepest red states, not in, you know, deep blue Massachusetts. Oklahoma, for example, has one of the best, maybe the best comprehensive early child education program. This investment is not yet seen as a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The notion that all of us have a shared interest in investing in our shared future, which is these kids, is not and has not historically been a partisan issue.”

“When I was growing up in Port Clinton 50 years ago, my parents talked about, ‘We’ve got to do things for our kids. We’ve got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a better swimming pool, or we’ve got to pay higher taxes so we can have a new French department in school,’ or whatever. When they said that, they did not just mean my sister and me — it was all the kids here in town, of all sorts. But what’s happened, and this is sort of the bowling alone story, is that over this last 30, 40, 50 years, the meaning of ‘our kids’ has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed so that now when people say, ‘We’ve got to do something for our kids,’ they mean MY biological kids.”

“The evidence suggests that when in American history we’ve invested more in the education of less well-off kids, it’s been good for everybody. My grandchildren are going to pay a huge price in their adult life because there’s a bunch of other kids, in principle just as productive as them, who didn’t get investments from their family and community, and therefore are not productive citizens. The best economic estimates are that the costs to everybody, including my own grandchildren, of not investing in those ‘other people’s kids’ are going to be very high.’”

Putnam even puts a price tag on the cost of national inequality, a press release for his book explains. He estimates that “in terms of crime and law enforcement, of public health, and above all of lower labor productivity” the country loses “$500 billion per year or roughly $6 trillion in present value over the lifetimes of the current cohort of disadvantaged kids. These are real costs that will be borne by our own kids if we don’t invest in these other people’s kids, as Americans have historically done in the past.”

As Putnam told WGBH, “In a way, what I’m trying to do with this book is to hold up a mirror to the way poorer kids are living in America, saying to rich Americans, Do you want to live in a country like that? Americans have historically responded to those kinds of injustices.”