Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Robert Putnam was back on WGBH several weeks ago talking about the hurdles that many children from poorer families can face.

As we blogged last year, Putnam’s book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” looks at “the inequality gap in the United States, drawing on both Putnam’s personal experiences and his academic research.” Putnam is a professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

For his book, Putnam returned to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. What he found was a local example of national trend: Wealth matters much now than it did when Putnam was young. Poorer children are struggling more.

“… all of these kids in this book are heart-rending stories because they – through no fault of their own – find themselves in circumstances in which they don’t have a chance in life, honestly. And they did nothing to cause that problem,” Putnam tells WGBH radio hosts Margery Eagan and Jim Braude.

Putnam spoke of Andrew and Kayla, two children in his book who live several miles apart, but exist in different universes. Andrew’ world is wealthy and stable, while Kayla faces poverty and greater vulnerability to upheaval. (Putnam’s section of the radio show runs from 1:18:49 to roughly 1:45:53.)

Last year, when he spoke to Eagan and Braude, Putnam said that poorer children in Port Clinton “are in awful shape. The families are very unstable families. The kids are basically fending for themselves. And nobody in town is looking after them.”

“Rich families can afford more piano lessons and summer camp, and so on. And poorer families can’t. What we call ‘Goodnight Moon’ time — the amount of time you spend just reading to children — there’s now a 45-minute gap in the amount of time. Didn’t used to be any gap at all between working class and upper class and the amount of time they spend with their kids. Now it’s grown to 45 minutes a day.”

These differences make it essential for the country to invest in children who have less.

“This is not zero sum. It’s not the case that if we help these poor kids it will be bad for my kids. Quite the contrary: my grandchildren will live in a richer America – they will be richer – if we invest in all of our kids and not just in our own.”

One solution Putnam points to in this year’s broadcast is early childhood education from birth to four or five years old (mentioned at 1:36:00).

“We know that high-quality early education does actually make a difference. It helps kids. It especially helps poor kids,” Putnam says, pointing to the success of Boston’s pre-K program. And to build on the benefits of pre-K, he calls for bringing parents into the process by offering them coaching.

Putnam also praises the value of early education in this video from WGBH’s television show “Greater Boston.”

Summing up his work in last year’s conversation with Eagan and Braude, Putnam said:

“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.”