The American dream in crisis? A discussion with Robert Putnam and Charles Murray

The American dream in crisis? A discussion with Robert Putnam and Charles Murray


ROBERT DOAR: Good afternoon and welcome to
the American Enterprise Institute and to what I hope will be a very stimulating conversation
about a set of very important issues. I am Robert Doar, the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty
Studies here at AEI. The most important task of a moderator at
an event of this kind with such truly great and distinguished participants is to say as
little as possible and get out of the way, and that is what I intend to do. We are going
to begin with Robert Putnam, who will discuss his latest book, “Our Kids: The American
Dream in Crisis,” which has received a great deal of deserved attention and praise. Dr.
Putnam is a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and his previous
work has included the widely read “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American
Community.” Then, we will turn to our two respondents,
beginning first with AEI’s Charles Murray, whose works have included “Losing Ground:
American Social Policy,” 1950 to 1980, and “Coming Apart: The State of White America,
1960-2010,” both essential works for anyone interested in what is happening in America’s
middle class and poor communities. Dr. Murray has also, thankfully for parents like me,
written a lovely book called “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead,” which I’ve given
to all of my college age children, hoping they would take it all – take all of his
advice. And by the way, happy Father’s Day to everyone. (Laughter.) After Dr. Murray, we will hear from William
Julius Wilson, who is a renowned sociologist and also a professor at Harvard. Dr. Wilson
is the author of very significant works, including “The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City,
the Underclass, and Public Policy,” and “More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor
in the Inner City,” both of which brought brave and important insight to some of the
hardest issues our country faces. Were I to list the awards Professor Wilson has earned,
we would have no time left for discussion. Now, I have one last thing to say, which may
surprise some of you here today, who perhaps came hoping for what that old late night talk
radio host on WMCA in New York, Malachy McCourt, used to call a real donnybrook. What I want
to say is that I’ve spent a lot of my weekend reading and re-reading some of the works of
these three great scholars. And I hope this doesn’t make any of you three uncomfortable,
but you agree on a great deal. Bob, you start us off. (Applause.) ROBERT PUTNAM: Thanks very much, Robert. I
really appreciate this opportunity. I’m grateful to AEI, to Arthur Brooks for the
invitation. And I’m especially grateful to my two co-panelists here, both of them
very distinguished, as Robert has said, but also both of them people who’ve blazed a
trail that I’m, in this new book, following. Bill Wilson, 40 years ago – almost 40 years
ago, 1978 I believe it was, Bill – published a book that was misleadingly titled but was
remarkably prescient, the title was “The Declining Significance of Race in America,”
but actually the book was about the increasing significance of class in America. I don’t
know, Bill, whether you’ve ever thought about re-titling the book. (Laughter.) But
it was a remarkable book because a lot of the evidence showed the increasing significance
of class in America. And then of course, Charles Murray, in 2012,
published “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.” And that book does many
things, but among other things, it highlights three important big trends in American society,
first of all increasing inequality of wealth and income. Secondly, in part, following on
that, increasing class segregation – America’s increasingly segregated by social class, as
Charles and others have pointed out, both segregated in terms of where we live. We’re not segregated in all respects more
than we used to be. And I’m now just summarizing some of what Charles also reported. We’re
not more segregated. We’re less segregated actually than we used to be, certainly in
religious terms, but even in racial terms, we’re somewhat less segregated. But we’re
more segregated than we used to be in social class terms, more segregated in residential
terms, more segregated in terms of who we go to school with, and more segregated – and
again, Charles pointed this out – more segregated in terms of whom we marry. And intermarriage
rates, although intermarriage religious and racial intermarriage rates have been rising,
class intermarriage rates have been falling for the last 30 or 40 or 50 years. That’s an important indicator – intermarriage
rates are an important indicator basically because we tend not to marry people that we
don’t know. (Laughter.) That’s a joke. Don’t you do jokes at AEI? I’m sorry.
(Laughter.) And that intermarriage rate is a nice reflection of the fact that – or
a distributing reflection of the fact that increasingly people of marriageable age are
more likely to encounter people of other religions and other races, but less likely to encourage
people of other social classes than we used to be. And those three – and of course, the third
big social trend that Charles point out was the collapse of the working class family and
collapse of the working class community in America – white as well as, or even maybe
more than, black. And those three big trends are, in a way, the starting point of this
new book of mine called “Our Kids.” In the book, I mean to ask what are the implications
of those trends, the increasing salience of class in American society that both Bill and
Charles have talked about. What are the implications of those for our kids? And in a series of stories and in a series
of what I call scissors graphs, I mean to lay out the evidence that over the last 30
or 40 years there’s been a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids in America. And I
want to emphasize that when I talk about rich and poor, I’m not talking about the upper
1 percent and the lower 1 percent. I’m talking about basically the upper third of American
society, which is college educated Americans, college graduates and kids coming from homes
where the parents were college graduates. That’s the up side and down side of all
these scissors graphs are people coming from the lower third of American society, which
are people who did not – parents who did not get past high school. Would you raise your hands if you have a college
degree, please? So when I say rich, I mean you. And that – and I’m making a comparison.
And these scissors graphs in the book show in many different measures of child welfare
and investments in children a growing gap over the last 30 or 40 years between kids
coming from college educated homes or rich kids, and kids coming from high school educated
homes or poor kids. Sometimes the scissors point up, that is things are getting better
for all kids, but getting better faster for rich kids. And sometimes the arrows point
down – I mean, the scissors point down, saying that things are getting worse for everybody,
but worse faster for poor kids. And let me just – I’m not – I don’t
have time to summarize in detail all these charts and graphs, but the basic kinds of
evidence that I have that I draw on, and much of this is drawn on from other people, some
of it is our own direct research, but I’m trying to pull together a wide range of evidence
on this growing opportunity gap. It shows up in how much money parents invest in their
kids. That is the gap in the amount of development parents spend on enrichment for their kids.
That’s just a – you know – sort of slightly jargony (ph) term for summer camp and piano
lessons and computers – computer games and trips to the zoo and trips to France and so
on. That kind of spending, among kids coming from
well off families in America has skyrocketed and it’s now nearly $7,000 per kid per year.
Whereas, on the very same measure, kids coming from high school-educated homes have had – high
school or less educated homes – have had no increase in that kind of indicator of summer
camp and piano lessons and so on. So they’re now just over $7,000 a year, so there’s
a – $700 a year. So there’s a huge gap and there didn’t used to be, in the kinds
of benefits that parents are able to provide to their kids. And I’m going to call that
the summer camp gap. But there’s an even more important gap in
terms of the amount of time parents spend with their kids, especially the amount of
developmental time that parents spend with their kids, which I call good night moon time.
That is the amount of time parents spend reading to their kids or playing pat-a-cake or taking
them to zoo – all that sort of thing. And it didn’t use to be that there was any class
gap in the amount of developmental time parents spend with their kids. But there’s been
a sharp increase – it’s actually – there’s been an increase, both among working class
and among middle class, upper middle class parents. But the trend is so much – so sharp
that now kids – my grandchildren, that is kids coming from college educated homes in
America get 45 minutes a day more in good night moon time than the equivalent kids coming
from high school educated homes. And that makes a big difference because as we know
now from the most recent brain science, that kind of interaction – direct, personal interaction
with kids has a powerful effect on brain development, and especially very early in their lives. But there’re similar kinds of gaps like
this in test scores at school, gaps in extracurricular activities, the amount of – taking part
in, you know, band or chorus or football or other extracurricular activities is quite
steady and high among upper middle class kids, kids coming from affluent homes, but dropping
sharply among kids who are coming from high school-educated homes. And that matters. I
get teased sometimes for hyperventilating about high school football, but the reason
that that matters is we know, as a matter of fact, that taking part in those extracurricular
activities matters for kids. It inculcates soft skills – I mean, demonstrably inculcates
soft skills, teamwork and hard work and Charles sometimes calls virtues of what my mom calls
stick-to-itiveness. And that’s – and we know that employers will actually pay more
for kids who – holding constant all the other things, test scores and so on – employers
will pay people who had extracurricular activities more than they pay equivalent people who haven’t.
And that’s because of those soft skills which have great value. And if we had more time, we’d pause on the
actual question, well, why has there been this drop in extracurricular participation
by poor kids in America? And the short answer is pay to play. We’ve now started charging
kids. Didn’t use to be. For most of the 20th century, all kids in American high schools,
rich and poor, got free – got to play football or band or chorus or whatever free. And that
was thought to be by taxpayers all over America a proper investment of their money to provide
kids not just with the reading, writing, arithmetic, and chemistry, but also the soft skills. We’ve
stopped – about 20 years ago, we began charging people for that. And of course, it had the
obvious effect, which is rich kids kept on going. On average, it costs nowadays in America per
kid, per semester about $400 to take part in any extracurricular activity. So if you’ve
got two kids, if they want to take part in both semesters, that’s $1,600, $1,600 if
you have an annual income of $200,000, you know, it’s not a big deal. But if your annual
income is $16,000, who in their right mind is going to pay, you know, 10 percent of their
total family annual income for their kids to take part in athletics or a band? And that
means that, as a matter of fact, we’ve now, by privatizing what for most of the 20th century
we thought of as a right that every kid ought to have, by privatizing that we’ve taken
it out of the hands of poor kids, not our own – not kids coming from college-educated
homes. There’re similarly gaps like that in involvement
in religious communities. That’s a very important example of community involvement.
Not – at least – I’m not trying to make an argument that that’s theologically bad
for poor kids. It may be, but that’s not my argument. My argument is that religious
communities used to be a rich source of social support for kids outside their immediate families.
As kids – working class kids have become less involved in church activities, therefore,
they’re less likely to encounter, you know, youth group leaders or Sunday school leaders
or just other parishioners who’d take an interest in them. So in – and indeed, I think the most important
generalization you can make about the implication of the trends – implication for kids of
these trends that Charles and William have – Charles and Bill Wilson have talked about
is that increasingly poor kids in America, unlike our kids, unlike kids coming from affluent
homes, poor kids in America are increasingly isolated, alone. They don’t trust anybody.
A young woman we interviewed in Portland, Ohio, who’s suffered from a lot of these
symptoms that I’ve talked about, recently posted on Facebook, love hurts, trust kills.
And if you think for a minute about what it means to grow up in a world in which you cannot
trust anybody, even your own parents. One way to see the importance of that is to
begin with the premise, which I think is true, that all kids do dumb things. All – rich
kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, brown kids, your kids, my kids – all kids do dumb
things. Raise your hand if as a child you never did any dumb thing. (Laughter.) Right,
I rest my case on that point. But nowadays, if you’re coming from an affluent home and
your child does some dumb thing – they get involved in drugs or they make a dumb decision
in their romantic life, or they get in a fight with a teacher, or they back the car into
the next door neighbor’s garage, when that happens, instantly, airbags inflate to protect
the kid from the consequences. It doesn’t allow the child to learn from that mistake.
And if it were my grandchildren involved, of course I’d inflate the airbag. But you
have to imagine that if a poor kid does exactly the same thing, no airbags. So – and therefore,
it can ruin a poor kids’ life, an event that otherwise would be a learning experience
if it’s coming from a rich kid. So the basic argument of this book is that
in those and many other ways, increasingly these broader trends of economic inequality
and economic segregation and the collapse of the working class family, those broader
trends bear directly on kids. And therefore, pose the likelihood, the challenge that, as
these kids age, we’ll see increasingly a growing gap in the opportunities kids have
for moving up. Increasingly, the most important decision a child will make is choosing their
parents. And that is fundamentally un-American. Because the idea that every – Americans
have not always agreed that everybody ought to have the same outcome, but Americans have
historically agreed – from our very founding, we’ve agreed that everybody ought to get
a fair, decent chance to get started. We don’t care how high, you know, Bill Gates climbs
or Warren Buffett climbs because, you know, they’re probably better climbers. They work
harder, that’s fine. On the assumption that all kids are getting on the ladder at the
same point, but that’s the issue that’s posed by these trends that I’ve been talking
about. Now, what’s to be done? Well, here, I think
there’s an interesting contrast that maybe Charles will talk about between – we basically
agree on a lot of things. I focus a little more on the consequences for kids, but we
basically agree on the larger changes that have happened. But we have somewhat different
– Charles and I have somewhat different views about why it happened and, most important,
about what can be done about it. And I’m going to try to be very brief here
and try to give him a big target to shoot at. (Laughter.) Basically, Charles, as he
once said publicly in another encounter that the two of us were involved in, I’m a libertarian.
Libertarians don’t do solutions. (Laughter.) I think I’m quoting your – I think I’m
quoting you accurately. CHARLES MURRAY: (Off mic.) – laugh line
all the time. (Laughter.) MR. PUTNAM: Well, I try not to use it in your
absence, Charles, but I will use it since you’re here. And to the extent that Charles
talks about solutions to this, he believes that we should say to the upper class that
they should start preaching what they practice. That is, the upper class, you know, now have
stable marriages. They should start preaching that to poor folks, and there should be a
cultural reawakening. And I’m not saying to be dismissive of.
That’s a particularly – that’s a good interpretation. I offer much more – in the
last chapter of my book – you can compare the two last chapters, actually. The last
chapter of my book offers a set of incrementalist changes, what I call purple policies, that
is some of them are going to look red or conservative, some of them are going to look blue or progressive.
I’ve been attacked by both sides for the fact that I have suggestions in there from
the other side of the political spectrum. Probably I’ve actually been attacked more
by liberals for having put some conservative observations in the book. But – and they’re
all incrementalist. And I – but behind that difference – I
mean, what I’m saying by incrementalist? I mean, I think early child education is a
no-brainer. I think that would make a big difference to leveling the playing field.
I think community colleges could provide an important on-ramp for kids that haven’t
had opportunities because of their parents. I think apprenticeships. I think tutoring.
I think – including, I think, a big contribution that the religious groups in America could
make is to be much more interventionist, much more active in reaching out to poor kids and
providing tutoring and social support, and so on. I think that parenting – coaching
programs around the country of coaching parenting that I think would be really helpful, a practical
maybe implementation of Charles’ idea of preaching what the upper class practices. But behind that, and this is my really last
point, I think Charles and I have a different interpretation of American history. And it’s
worth surfacing that in this context, I think, so that we can have a – we can see how these
two interpretations, two big macro interpretations of America, which agree on what’s happening
now, how we differ a little bit about how we got here and where we might go from here. Charles, I think, and he’ll be able to speak
next, so he’ll say what I’m wrong about this, doesn’t talk much about history except
to talk about the importance of certain virtues in American civic cultures that have been
in our national DNA since the founding. And I sort of agree with it that that’s – that
those are virtues that they’ve been in our cultural DNA, or civic cultural DNA since
the founding. But then, basically you don’t get much sense of historical change in Charles
book until 1963, when Kennedy’s assassinated and basically the rule goes to hell in a handbasket,
and he then offers some interpretations for why that might have triggered this increasing
class disparity, partly having to do with permissiveness, partly having to do with public
policy that gave incentives to people not to be virtuous. And he – Charles basically sees the alternatives
available to us as either libertarianism or what he describes, I think fairly, as European
social democracy. Those are the two options we have. I actually have a different view.
I don’t – I think that the history of America is not a constant, but the history
of America is variable. I think there’ve been periods in American history when we have
been very individualistic. And now is probably the most dramatic instance of that. But there’ve
been periods in America when we’ve been very egalitarian and also very communitarian. And so I’m going to close with one PowerPoint.
Let’s see if I can get it up there. I’m going to show you – and then, I’m not
going to make a point about, I just want to show you a series of charts about social change
in the 20th century. So I’m going to begin, of course, with the first place that you would
begin, which is with “Bowling Alone,” which is a great book, if you’ve not read
it, you ought to get it. (Laughter.) So here’s the trends in social capital in America over
the 20th century. This book – this graph appears in “Bowling Alone.” And you could see, it begins very low, and
this is based on associational membership, begins very low, rises, dips during the Great
Depression, then rises, reaches a peak in the middle ’60s, just about the same time
that Charles’s change of America begins, and then declines. That’s that “Bowling
Alone” part is the last drop down. Now, I’m going to show you a different graph,
completely independent methodologically. This is a graph of philanthropy, the degree to
which the fraction of our personal income that we give away to other people and, well,
looks like the same graph almost. We became more and more generous toward other people,
giving away a larger and larger fraction of our income to other people, until just about
the same time actually, 1963. Sorry. Thank you. Do I need to repeat everything
I’ve said? (Laughter.) The first graph shows the trends in associational membership as
one index of social capital over the 20th century, rising for the first two thirds of
the 20th century and then falling. The next graph, methodologically quite independent
comes from IRS tax data, which shows giving as a fraction of total personal income. And
that rises until just about the same time and then begins declining. Now, let me show you a different chart. This
is a chart of economic inequality. This comes from the famous Piketty work about economic
– this is income inequality in America. Huh, looks like the same trend. Rising inequality
from the – I mean, sorry, this is income equality. The graph is income equality. Income
equality rises for the first two thirds of the 20th century and then sometime in the
middle to late ’70s begins to – equality begins to decline and that’s, of course
– that graph, historically is anchored in two gilded ages. The gilded age of the end
of the 19th – the last part of the 19th century, which then led into the – that’s
why we had a very unequal distribution of income in 1900 – got more and more equal,
and then ended in the current gilded age in which we’ve had great income inequality.
And of course, Charles talks about this in his – Charles talks about the second part
of that, the increase in inequality, in his book. Now, I want to show you – let’s see, what’s
the next trend? This is a trend in political consensus. Actually, it comes from a book
by a couple of political scientists. Their measure is political polarization. And I’ve
done is flipped it upside down. So it’s a measure not of polarization, but a measure
of non-polarization, depolarization. And just amazingly it begins with a highly polarized
political system, becomes less and less polarized, reaches a peak of depolarization in about
1965, ’70, and then polarization. So if you just came into the story, in the ’60s,
you’d see the depolarization. But if you look at the whole 20th century, you see this
– now, I hope it’s beginning to be puzzling – this U-shaped of the 20th century, which
begins in – begins in a polarized period, ends in a polarized period, but in the middle
– just as in the middle we were more communitarian, we were more philanthropic, we were more egalitarian
in our distribution of income, we were more depolarized and consensual in our politics
in that period. This next graph is union membership. I put
that in here just to discombobulate some AEI folks. But union membership turns out to have
exactly the same pattern. And I actually interpret that as reflecting that we have a solidarity
within the working class, but doesn’t matter whether you have some other interpretation.
Nevertheless, that’s what the graph looks like, reaches its peak in the early – late
’50s or early ’60s. We can look at another chart here, which is
– oops, sorry, I went too quickly – past – is this wealth? And amazingly, now you’re
going to be shocked, that the trends in inequality in wealth show the same pattern rises. Inequality
in wealth peaks a little later. And actually, let me just pause for one second here to note
that I haven’t yet said what’s causing what. And it’s an interesting question.
I do not know the answer to what’s causing what. Most people, when they first begin to
see these patterns, they think it must all be driven by income inequality or by wealth
inequality. But if you’ve looked to the graphs carefully, you’ll see that actually
in all cases, the economic variables are the last to turn. They turn about 15 to 20 years
after the other variables turn. And since, for the most part, causes precede
their effects – (laughter) – it’s a little implausible, if you look at these graphs,
to think that it’s all being driven by economic inequality because the trends began to go
– all these other variables began to go down before economic inequality. That even
raises the possibility, which would be interesting to pause over, if we had more time, could
the trends in economic inequality, in some sense, be the consequence of these other trends?
And if we had more time, I’d try to convince you that’s a possibility. All I want to
say is that’s a possibility. I’m trying to have you not jump too quickly to a causal
conclusion. And then, the last chart – the last chart
comes from another scholar and I can’t statistically put them on the same graph because – well,
for reasons you’ll see in a minute, he – he’s composed it of two different datasets, so
they don’t yet quite connect with one another, but they show trends in interclass marriage;
that is, these are trends in the degree to which people are marrying one another across
class lines. And you see that interclass marriage was rising
for the first two thirds of the 20th century, people were more and more marrying people
across class lines – and if my interpretation of intermarriage is right, they were more
and more connecting, encountering one another across class lines. And then, just about the
same time that people began to – you know, we became less equal and we became less philanthropic,
and we became all those other changes, we also began this trend away from interclass
marriage. Now, as in many of these cases, Charles actually
reports the second half of that chart, but doesn’t report the first half of the chart.
Now, if you put all those together, it’s pretty remarkable. That something’s going
on – passes the famous statistical test, the Interocular Trauma Test, it hits you between
the eyes that something is going on. Now, I don’t know quite what’s going on. You
could – every – actually, every single line in that graph, there’s somebody who
says it’s the cause of everything else. Or there’s something that explains just
it. If you look at union membership, for example,
you know, you could talk about FDR and then the Taft-Hartley Act. So I mean, you could
find a micro-cause for each one of these trends. But if you step back, it seems maybe something
bigger is going on. I actually know the cause – (laughter) – which I’m about to share
with you. I first began to vote in 1964. (Laughter.)
And I am now able to reveal that I personally brought all of this on to America. (Laughter.)
And I want to just quickly finish. If I can just take a minute. If you look at these charts,
one of the things that occurs to you the more you think about it is what caused those trends
to move in upward direction for the first two thirds of the 20th century? When, I think
if we had data going even further back – I’ve looked at this, we don’t really have good
data – it was not as bad. It had gotten – you know, it was another cycle back there
earlier. What caused that turning point? I told you what caused the turning point in
the middle ’60s here, ’63-’64. What caused the other turning point? And the answer
was, I think, Americans across the country recognized how bad things had gotten. There
were a lot of parallels between – a lot of parallels between the society and economy
and politics of America at the end of the 19th century and today’s society and economics
and politics. Great inequality of income, big wave of immigration, very high levels
of political corruption, very high levels of political alienation, and of course degradation
of the cities. And then, pretty quickly, in about 10 to 15 years, from about 1890 to about
1910, Americans across the country began to recognize that we had become two societies.
A famous book written at that time was called “How the Other Half Lives.” And “How
the Other Half Lives” was simply a description of poverty in the slums of the Lower East
Side intended to be read by folks on the Upper East Side. Now, some of the people on the Upper East
Side said, that’s fine. You know, they’re immigrants. They’re Jews (at times ?), whatever,
I don’t care how they’re living. But some of the people on the Upper East Side reevaluated
their view and underwent what Charles talks about actually as something we need now and
I agree with this, it’s a sort of a civic reawakening. But you could see it in that
period. The most important result of – there’re
many, of course, important results, but the most important result relevant to our time
is at that time, for that purpose, Americans all over the country, beginning in small towns
in the Midwest and then spreading rapidly across the country, invented the high school.
Invented the high school. That was the first time in world history that anybody in any
place of the world had agreed that everybody in town should pay for all kids to get a free
secondary education. It was not an easy sale because the rich folks
in town, the rich lawyers and bankers and farmers and so on, already had paid for their
kids to get a private secondary school. And they were off making money in Chicago. But
the deal was you had to sell those rich folks in town on the idea that they would maybe
be better off if they helped pay for other people’s kids to have a secondary education.
And that turned out to be the best public policy decision America’s ever made. Because
it turned out, the economic historians show that most of American growth of the 20th century
came from that decision that everybody should pay for everybody’s kids to go to secondary
school. It raised the total level of the productivity
of American workforce enormously and accounts for almost all of the American growth in the
20th century. And it simultaneously leveled the playing field. And that is what accounts
for this, I think, this – the upward turn. And all I’m saying now is – and this is
what the last chapter of my book is arguing –we need – I don’t want us to become
like Sweden. Charles thinks I want us to become like Sweden. I don’t want. I want us just
to become like America. We’ve done this before and we could do this
again. Thank you very much for your time. (Applause.) MR. MURRAY: Policy analysts who write about
America’s new lower class hardly ever know what they’re talking about at first hand.
Your average professor or, for that matter, think-tank scholar probably came from the
middle class or upper middle class. Before talking about people under the age
of Bob and Bill, and they probably came from the middle class or upper middle class home.
They went through their Ph.D. They know the numbers on labor force participation and on
educational attainment, non-marital births, backwards and forwards, but they’ve never
actually lived in a working class community. They’ve never hung out with those people.
They haven’t the least idea what life is like there. And the great virtue of Bob’s book – and
this is a big deal – is that he uses this brilliant device to open each of the six chapters
in the book, where he has two extended narratives, drawn from field interviews, one with a middle
class or upper middle class family that’s doing OK, and another from a, what I call
the new lower class. It’s really hard to do that well. For one thing, if you have somebody going
out to the field to interview and they have no idea what’s going on, they don’t get
really open answers. And furthermore, there is a real temptation when you write up your
field notes – if you have a narrative in mind that explains all of this, there’s
a real temptation to self-censor. What Bob has in the book, “Our Kids,”
are beautiful evocative narratives about what’s going on, several of them that just are completely
authentic, as far as I can tell. A lot of the credit for that goes, as Bob gives in
the book, to Jennifer Silva, who conducted most of the interviews. She must just be a
brilliant interviewer. But Bob is the guy who wrote them up. And he wrote them up in
ways which preserve that authenticity. And if for no other reason you ought to buy and
read the book. And if you work professionally in this field,
as my colleagues do and as a lot of you in the room do, you’ve got to read this. This
is that overused phrase “required reading.” “Our Kids” is required reading. I’m not going to spend a lot of time saying
all the things I agree with Bob about because that’s not very helpful, but I just want
to say in passing, pay-to-play ought to go, absolutely? No airbags, I think that’s a
huge factor distinguishing the lives of kids with privilege and kids without. No airbags
if you are a poor kid. Equality of opportunity, even though you end up with unequal outcomes
– could not agree more. And for that matter, even when Bob and I disagree
probably on the evaluation literature for something like Pre-K. Look, if you have a
kid who’s in a punishing environment, and for a couple of hours a day, you put that
child into an environment which is genuinely nurturing and loving, well, that’s good
in itself, and so outcomes 20 years down the road may be interesting, but they aren’t
the only justification for that kind of expenditure. So in all of these things, if Bob gets his
way in and spends huge amounts of money on the kinds of programs, the purple programs
he describes, some of them I will enthusiastically support and others of them I will say to myself
I don’t know how much good they’re doing, but the government has lots of worse ways
of spending my money, so, you know. (Laughter.) OK, at this point, I must take on my role,
which I’ve been taking on for 30 years now of being a Grinch. Everything, in my view,
that Bob recommends could be implemented full bore with big budgets, far beyond any reasonable
hope and little real change in the long term. The reason I say that is that the opportunity
gap is driven by larger forces that his policy prescriptions cannot do much about. And three
reasons for that pessimistic statement stand out in my own mind. First, the standard interventions
for improving the lives of poor kids are aiming at a relatively unimportant target. Children’s
personal characteristics, everything from athletic ability to cognitive ability, personality
characteristics are the product of three sources: genes, shared environment, and non-shared
environment. The shared environment refers to the kinds
of things that Bob talked about during his presentation, things such as family income,
parenting style, the money that’s spent on kids to go to summer camp and so forth,
exposure to books. When you talk about this statistic – everybody likes to talk about
a child from a poor family knows about 5 million fewer words or whatever by the time they’re
at the age of five than a child from a privileged background. OK, that’s part of the shared
environment as well, so is religious upbringing and parental investments of other kinds. The non-shared environment includes everything
from prenatal events in the womb to injuries and illnesses that affect one sibling but
not another. Peer groups are an important aspect of the non-shared environment, and
another 100 other random events, random in terms of affecting one sibling in a family,
but not the other. Whatever they may be, the elements of the non-shared environment are
largely beyond the reach of public policy by their very nature. The surprising, the even counterintuitive
but consistent finding, based on a large literature of high quality studies is that the shared
environment has this remarkably small role in explaining how children turn out. Let me
give you two examples. The numbers are coming from a recently published meta-analysis of
all such studies from 1958 onward. It’s a landmark study actually because it pulls
together so much. It was published in Nature, which is not a right wing rag. You can find
it yourself if you google, Nature heritability of human traits. It comes up online. Anyway, the two important examples of traits
we want to affect through interventions, one of them is cognitive ability. In that one,
the role of the shared environment in explaining the variance is 17 percent, compared to 54
percent for genes and 29 percent for measurement error in the non-shared environment. For conduct disorders, which includes many,
many studies on – focusing on anti-social and aggressive behavior, the shared environment
accounts for only 15 percent of the variance, genes for 51 percent, and 34 percent for everything
else. That’s not the whole story obviously. Genes and environment interact, among other
things, but my point survives the complications. The roster of standard interventions to reduce
the opportunity gap are almost entirely focused on factors that fall under the rubric of shared
environment. Furthermore, a program that only lasts a few
hours a day at most is only going to affect a fraction of a fraction of that aspect that
causes the problems. If policymakers were really serious about getting all the juice
they can out of altering the shared environment, they would be advocating adoption at birth
and high quality orphanages. They don’t. I know just mentioning the word “orphanages,”
that’s as, see, he’s like I always said he was. He’s – he wants to bring back
the Dickensian orphanages and put all the poor kids into them. That’s not really what
I had in mind. But in any case, the second point is that
we – the opportunity gap is accompanied by a substantial ability gap. The graphs in
the book are divided into the children of parents with at least a college degree and
those of parents with no more than a high school diploma. OK, you’ve got educational
attainment correlated with IQ. You’ve got parental IQ correlated with children’s IQ.
And the upshot is that if you use the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has one
of our best databases for this, you have a gap in the mean IQ of children of mothers
with at least a college degree and those mothers with only a high school diploma of 16 points.
That’s a little more than a standard deviation. It’s a big difference. And remember that
the role of the environment in creating that 16 points is really quite small. Remember
that’s 17 percent of the variance that’s accounted for by the shared environment. Again, my underlying point is simple. IQ has
a substantial direct correlation with measures of success in life, including other qualities
that lead to success, such as grit or perseverance and other kinds of things that go under the
label emotional intelligence. A lot of the differences in outcomes we’re seeing between
the upper class and the lower class are the product of those kinds of differences and
inability. And third, the gap in human capital in working
class and upper middle class communities has been widening over time. Bob talked about
assortative mating and showed data for it. It’s really stunning. I’ve just had my
50th reunion at Harvard, and so we’ve got the Big Harvard Book, where we all write our
life histories and so forth. And I’ve been going through it. And the degree to which
gilt-edged guys have been marrying gilt-edged girls in terms of their educational backgrounds
and the rest of it is incredible. It’s pretty widely accepted that after the
civil rights revolution African-American communities took a big hit in their human capital, when
the most successful blacks could move out. I think an argument can be made that the same
thing is happening in white communities today. Well, Bob has already referred to my takeaway
from all this with the ways in which we really need a civic great awakening. However, I got
to say that the fact is civic great awakenings have about as much chance of transforming
what’s going on as a full implementation of Bob’s purple program does. The parsimonious
way to extrapolate to the trends that Bob described so beautifully in the book is to
predict an America permanently segregated into social classes that no longer share the
common bonds that once made this country so exceptional and the destruction of the national
civic culture that Bob and I both cherish. I hope for a better outcome. I do not expect
it. Thank you. (Applause.) WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: As Bob Putnam pointed
out, in 1978 I published a controversial book entitled “The Declining Significance of
Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions,” in which I argued that economic class has
become more important than race in determining the life trajectories of individual African-Americans. My thesis is consistent with one of Bob Putnam’s
central arguments; namely, although racial barriers to success remain powerful, they
represent less burdensome impediments than they did in the 1950s. By contrast, class
barriers in America loom much larger than they did back then. And this is revealed not
only in growing income inequality among all racial and ethnic groups, but also increasing
disparities and many other aspects of wellbeing, accumulated wealth, class segregation across
neighborhoods, quality of primary and secondary education, enrollment in highly selective
colleges, and even life expectancy. And as I reflect on the powerful arguments
in Putnam’s book, I conclude that one of the major underlying themes of the declining
significance of race, the other theme that economic – that racial conflict has shifted
from the economic sector to the social-political order I’m not dealing with today. But the
changing relative significance of race and class on one’s life trajectory, that’s
consistent with Putnam’s article because it has been extended to all U.S. racial and
ethnic groups and our kids, with the emphasis, of course, on the trajectories of today’s
children. The title “The Declining Significance of
Race” lends itself to misinterpretation among those who have either not read the book
or have not read it carefully. For such readers, as I pointed out in the book’s third edition,
in 2012, published by the University of Chicago Press, the title conveys an optimistic view
of American race relations and doesn’t reflect the book’s pessimistic tone about the conditions
and future of poor blacks. In many respects, the conditions of poor African-Americans
are worse now than when the first edition of “The Declining Significance of Race”
was published, almost four decades ago. And the gap between the haves and have-nots in
the African-American community has widened significant. Now, Bob Putnam captures this growing intraracial
divide in our kids, particularly in chapter three on parenting, when he discusses the
growing class and income differences among African-Americans in Atlanta, Georgia. And
I would like to reinforce his arguments by showing that the divide is even greater – that
the divide in the African-American community is even greater than he discussed. Let me draw upon U.S. Census data using the
Gini ratio, which measures the extent to which the actual income distribution of a particular
group deviates from a hypothetical distribution in which each household of the group receives
an equal proportion of the total group income. The measure ranges from zero, perfect equality,
to one, maximum inequality. Now I don’t know how many of you can see
this figure, but as revealed in figure one, income inequality across the American population
as a whole rose from a low of 0.39 in 1970 to 0.48 in 2013. This is certainly consistent
with Putnam’s argument. Even more significant, however, is a high level of intragroup inequality
among black households. Although the absolute level of black income is well below that of
whites, blacks, nonetheless, display the most intragroup income inequality, reaching a household
Gini index of 0.49 in 2013, followed by white’s 0.47 and Hispanics 0.45. Blacks in the green
bars, whites in the red bar – red line, Hispanics in the blue – is that purple?
Yeah, a purple line. OK. Now, research reveals that income inequality
is related to income segregation. Figure two presents data on income segregation by race
in metropolitan areas with populations of more than 500,000. And the source for this
figure is a study by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon. Oh, I’m sorry. Now go forward? Nope. There
we go. I’ll keep my hands off this. (Laughter.) So as I said, research reveals that income
inequality is related to income segregation. This figure presents data on income segregation
by race in metropolitan areas with populations of more than 500,000. And as I said, the source
for this figure is a study by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon. Now, this figure reveals
that income segregation has grown rapidly in the last decade, and particularly among
black and Hispanic families. And what is notable is that whereas African-Americans
in 1970 recorded the least income segregation, they now registered the highest income segregation.
Now, please note that we are talking about – we are talking here about residential
segregation among black families of different income levels, not segregation between black
and white families. And another way of talking about these trend lines is that they describe
the extent to which the exposure of families to neighbors of the same race has changed
over time. Although income segregation among black families
grew considerably in the 1970s and 1980s, it grew even more rapidly from 2000 to 2009,
after slightly declining in the 1990s. And when considering a person’s life trajectory
or life chances, the differences in the quality of one’s daily life between residing in
a predominantly affluent neighborhood and a poor black neighborhood are huge. And it is important to note that today poor
black families have fewer middle class neighbors than they had in 1970, when I – even before
I began writing “The Declining Significance of Race.” When income segregation is coupled with racial
segregation, low-income blacks cluster neighborhoods that feature disadvantages along several dimensions,
including joblessness, educational attainment, and family structure. Now, to select only
one important indicator, in 1978, poor blacks age 12 and over were only marginally more
likely than affluent blacks to be violent crime victims, roughly 45 and 38 per 1,000
individuals respectively, in 1978. However, by 2008, poor blacks were far more likely
to be violent crime victims, about 75 per 1,000 as compared with 23 per 1,000 for affluent
blacks. So despite the continuing intraracial disparities,
the socioeconomic gap between better off blacks, including the college educated and poor blacks
is wide and growing. However, in order to keep things in proper perspective, it is important
not to overlook the continuing interracial disparities. For example, even though there
has been greater income segregation among black families, middle class black families
tend to live in areas with a much higher percentage of low income families than do comparable
white families. Racial differences in wealth helped to explain
some of these patterns. Because white families have greater average wealth than black families,
they are more likely to afford housing in higher income neighborhoods. Researchers at
the Pew Research Center recently released data showing that the median financial wealth
of white households in 2013 exceeded that of black households by almost $131,000. So despite the sharp increases in income inequality
and income segregation among blacks, the interracial disparities between blacks and whites remain
huge and must always be kept in mind when discussing and highlighting growing intraracial
differences. And Bob, if I have one quibble with your book, I don’t think you devote
sufficient attention to the continuing interracial disparities. But this is the only criticism
I have of this remarkable book. And let me just conclude by saying that I
think that Bob Putnam’s thoughtful policy recommendations, he calls them incremental
policy interventions, are really designed to achieve what the social philosopher James
Fishkin – F-I-S-H-K-I-N, Fishkin calls equality of life chances. According to this principle,
if we can predict with a high degree of accuracy where individuals will end up in the competition
for preferred positions in society, merely by knowing their family background, race or
gender, then the conditions that affect or determine their motivations and talents are
grossly unequal. Supporters of this principle believe that
a person should not be able to enter a hospital ward of healthy newborn babies and accurately
predict their eventual social and economic position in society solely on the basis of
their race and/or economic class origins. Unfortunately, in many urban neighborhoods
in the United States, you can accurately make such predictions. Supporters of the principle of equality of
life chances feel that it is unfair that some individuals in our society receive every conceivable
advantage, while others, from the day they are born, never really have a chance to develop
their talents. This depressing picture is vividly portrayed in Putnam’s excellent
book. Thank you. (Applause.) MR. DOAR: OK, so those were excellent presentations,
as we expected, and thank you very much. I’ve got a couple of questions, and then we will
open it up to some questions from the audience. And of course, I invite panelists to comment
anything they’ve heard before. My first question comes a little bit from
my background as a social services practitioner in large federal programs that intervene or
try to help in families lives all across America. And one of the things that struck me about
your book, Dr. Putnam, was the extent to which those large programs – SNAP, cash welfare,
Medicaid – are very little mentioned, either in the wonderful depictions of the families
or in your – until the very end, where you say, protect the social safety net. And I wondered whether the three panels would
talk a little bit about the extent to which the – and, by the way, a lot of that happened
right at the turn of your U-shaped color – the extent to which that had an effect on civic
society and on what was going on in communities and among families. MR. PUTNAM: Yes. Actually, what I’m puzzling
about here is how to reconcile your question about the impact of public policies with your
colleague’s question about the impact of public policies because Charles basically
said this is all determined by things other than policies. So I don’t see how you both
could be right. MR. DOAR: Well, that’s the thing about AEI
– MR. PUTNAM: I want to suggest the two of you
talk. If these outcomes are being driven by things that are impervious to policy, which
is what Charles argued, then it can’t – the trends can’t have been caused by public
policies. And my own view is that things like SNAP and
Medicaid, for example, have prevented the problem from getting worse. And I think there’s
pretty good actually evidence about that, at least in the case of food stamps, SNAP,
that, actually, kids of equal circumstances, whose families have gotten SNAP have actually
done better in terms of upward mobility than kids of the same circumstances, whose parents
didn’t get SNAP. We may disagree about the details of any particular evaluation, but
that’s the way – I really intimate that’s my view. I think the problems of poor kids in America
would have been much worse if their parents hadn’t benefited from SNAP from – well,
I don’t say all transfer programs but at least from the ones – the ones – that
one and probably also Medicaid. I can’t imagine that these kids would have been better
off if their parents had not had access to medical care. MR. MURRAY: This gives me a good chance to
clarify something that could have been confusing from the presentation. When you have a situation where, for example,
non-marital births, to take one big statistic, goes from a few percent of children to 40
percent of children over the course of 50 years, you’ve clearly had something causing
that, and you’ve had policy changes that may or may not have been implicated if they
certainly could have been. When I’m talking about how children, individual
children turn out, I’m talking about such things as success in school, the likelihood
that they’re going to get arrested, and those kinds of things. And those are the ones
where, when you have targeted interventions to try to change the lives of children, they’re
going after elements in the shared environment which do not seem to be determinative of these
kinds of outcomes, except for a small proportion of the variance. So you have some big causes
out there. And what I’m really saying, I guess to simplify
it a lot, is it’s not whether they hear five million words more or fewer than other
kids. There are large macro-causes that are shaping the culture, shaping the zeitgeist. And those are the things I think we need to
think more seriously about and also to recognize – let me just say it this way, OK? I am
saying nothing more controversial about the role of the shared environment in shaping
outcomes than every parent of more than one child in this room knows. Every parent of
more than one child in this room had major differences of one kind or another in their
kids. And if any of you were under the impression that you could have done anything to have
made their personalities or cognitive abilities or behaviors more like each other, you are
part of a very small number of experienced parents. And that’s all I’m saying about determining
how children turn out. These things going to the shared environment, aren’t nearly
as important as most people think. MR. DOAR: I want to see if – did you want
to comment or not? MR. WILSON: Right. I just want to say that,
you know, the kinds of income inequality that we’re talking about is not unique to the
United States. It’s occurring in other Western democracies, maybe not as extreme as in the
United States. But we should not lose sight of the fact that all of these societies are
experiencing changes in the economy that now place a premium on college education, advances
in technology, the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs of places overseas. We have to build
these arguments in when we’re looking at the overall picture. MR. DOAR: Did you want to say something? MR. PUTNAM: Well, at some point, I want to
respond directly to Charles’ argument that policy can’t really affect the things we
care about. I don’t have to do it now, but I want to respond to that. MR. DOAR: You can do it now. (Laughter.) MR. PUTNAM: It’s important to keep in mind
what we’re trying to explain. We all agree, or I think we all agree that, increasingly,
poor kids are at a disadvantage relative to rich kids. “Increasingly” is the important
word, not just that poor kids have an advantage – I mean, rich kids have an advantage but
that advantage is growing. And it’s the growth that we need to focus on. And that’s not the same – and the book,
that book, which is a great book, is about change. It’s not about how one individual
could do compared to another individual. It’s about how the – the overall structure is
changing. And the question is whether the sorts of factors, especially the genetic factors
that Charles now wants to emphasize, could conceivably account for the change. Now, what Charles wants to argue is because
of increasing homophily, that is rich folks marrying other rich folks and poor folks marrying
other poor folks – he doesn’t quite say it, but what he wants to say is, what do you
expect? You’ve got these rich folks marrying one another, they’re smarter, and their
kids are going to be smarter. But the question is, as a matter of genetics,
could the big changes that are described here, have possibly been produced by genetic factors
over two generations? And the answer is they couldn’t conceivably – something other
than the genetic endowment of these kids must have accounted for the change. And even I
don’t doubt for a moment – MR. MURRAY: We agree on that. We completely
agree on that. MR. PUTNAM: Well, but then, you can’t argue
that policy is irrelevant to the question of – policy is irrelevant to the question
of whether a smart kid is going to, you know, do better than a dumb kid, but here’s the
important fact. It didn’t use to be the case in America but it is now the case in
America that rich dumb kids are more likely to graduate from college than smart poor kids.
And that – hey, that didn’t always used to be the case, and it controls – that statement
controls for these genetic things. And all I’m saying is that idea that rich, smart
kids have a better chance in life than poor dumb kids isn’t fair. MR. DOAR: Thank you. I’m glad there was
agreement. One question, Dr. Wilson, I wanted to follow
up with you on and just to see if there’s any hope in the revitalization of some of
America’s larger cities in terms of middle class and more affluent and more educated
people moving back into the city. Have you – do you see any sign that that can lead
to greater social interaction and greater involvement and better outcomes for the poor
kids that had been left behind? MR. WILSON: You’re really talking about
gentrification. I think of gentrification, I think of the city of Washington, D.C., which
is undergoing significant gentrification. I was on leave this semester from Harvard
at the Library of Congress and I got a chance to talk with a number of the block workers
who work at the Library of Congress. And they said they can’t afford to live in their
neighborhoods anymore. They said they’re moving out to some of the poorer suburban
areas. Gentrification has certainly had a major effect
on neighborhoods in that it significantly improves resources in a neighborhood, you
know, improvements in – you have first class supermarkets showing up in these areas, improvements
in public schools, and so on. The problem, however, is that gentrification
results in sometimes a significant increase in rents, significant increase in housing
appreciation, and, unless you own a home to begin with, it’s very, very difficult to
remain in these communities. Local taxes increase sharply, so much so that many local residents
can no longer afford to live there. You know, it would be great if we could have
gentrification that maintained the kind of integration that we would love to see in neighborhoods,
that is economic integration, not to speak of racial integration. But unless there is
some program to help these families stay there, gentrification results in significant social
dislocation. MR. DOAR: No comments. OK. We have a question.
Yes. Tim. Wait for the mic. Q: Thank you very much. I found all of this
incredibly edifying but when – Mr. Putnam, when you were talking about the invention
of the high school being this great advance, I wonder if, in the long run, public schools
create the – exacerbate the coming apart. My kids’ parish school, Catholic school
is much more racially diverse than the average public school in Montgomery County because
we don’t have to be able to afford the property taxes, the property values that exist in Bethesda-Chevy
Chase or the really good public schools. At the public schools, whether it’s local
property taxes or just the costs of the home in the better schools create this class segregation
that doesn’t exist maybe so much in, you know, a church-run school or something like
that, where anybody can come in and there’s significant financial aid for the lower income. MR. PUTNAM: Well, to begin with, you’ll
maybe be pleased to know that in “Our Kids,” I actually talk about the role that Catholic
schools have played in narrowing the opportunity gap. So I’m on the same side of that with
you. But I do want to address the larger point that you raised which is our public schools
making the problem worse. And I want to be clear because I think I may
provoke some people in the room. I think that this is not a problem that – the opportunity
gap, I’m talking about in general – is not a problem that schools created. I think schools are a site where this happens
but, in general, public schools in America – I’m not now making any negative remark
about Catholic schools, but public schools in America marginally narrow the opportunity
gap. You can see this in many ways. The gap is actually fully present before kids even
get to school. That suggests it’s not being exacerbated by schools. It’s schools are
– and the other evidence you probably know is the gap widens when kids are out of school
in the summer and narrows when kids are in school in the winter. So schools – I’m trying to summarize my
basic position clearly so that people can respond to it. I think schools did not cause
this problem at all. What caused the – the relevance of schools
– I mean, the way in which schools serve as echo chambers for factors outside the schools
is a different sort. Because of increasing segregation, economic segregation that we’ve
talked about, increasingly rich kids are going to school with other rich kids, and poor kids
are increasingly going to school with other poor kids. And, as we’ve known for a long
time, the most important thing about school quality is who else is going there. So, increasingly, rich kids are able to benefit
from the fact that other kids in their class are bringing in their backpack – when they
come to school, they’re bringing their parents’ resources, their parents’ aspirations, their
parents’ civic culture. And that helps all the kids in school. And poor kids, when they
go to school, are increasingly going to school in which other kids are bringing in their
backpack, family disruption, and depression, and gang violence, and so on. And, therefore,
schools are not the origin of that problem. The origin of the problem are these outside
factors that we’ve been talking about. But schools could maybe do more to narrow the
gap. I’m not saying that schools can’t do more to narrow the gap and there’s some
suggestions about that in the book. But I am not – I think it’s important
to keep distinct two issues, is this another problem that the schools are causing? And
I think the answer to that is pretty clearly no. This is not a problem caused by school
but it is a problem that schools could help fix, in part by following some of the same
strategies that Catholic schools have used effectively to help poor kids. MR. MURRAY: Just one real quick addition to
that is I think you have a big difference in the roles that the schools play in smaller
communities and in big cities. In a community with only one high school but
that has different socio-economic classes, the schools are a great source of getting
kids to know everybody and – well, both Bob and I grew up in such towns. But that’s
still true in small towns and small cities today. As soon as you get into a large city, the
segregation that we’ve all talked about is so extreme that the schools act as a bubble,
particularly for the elites, that is I think very destructive. MR. DOAR: The guy in red. Q: I’m Harry Holzer from Georgetown and
Brookings. I guess my question or questions are for Charles Murray. Having not looked at the paper in Nature that
you’re talking about, but it sounds like the dependent variable there is overall variance
in outcomes, which is really – just means inequality. If we narrow our goals or agenda – let’s
say we’re all pessimistic that dramatic declines in inequality aren’t’ going to
happen, but if we have a more modest goal, which is simply to improve the life outcomes,
the chances of the kids at the bottom, maybe from moving from the bottom quintile, when
they become adults, up to the second quintile, something like that, number one, would you
not agree that there’s some policies that could affect that? One thinks of the Civil
Rights Act, one thinks of the GI bill. I think there’s enormous social science evidence
that those things did improve life outcomes for somebody. And if you would agree that some things can
matter for those kids, number two, is there a prospect, is there a possibility of a purple
package, maybe not exactly the one that Bob Putnam has at the back of his book, but a
package of educational and training, economic packages, civics, marriage promotion, as Brad
Wilcox – can you imagine a set of packages – a grand bargain, where, even if you remain
relatively pessimistic, that you could sign onto along with Bill Wilson and Bob Putnam,
which, given this town, given how amazingly polarized ideologically and politically this
town – that would be a quite powerful statement I think to make. MR. MURRAY: OK. Just a couple of quick statements. One is – as I indicated in my remarks, there
are some aspects of Bob’s program that I support wholeheartedly – public schools,
extracurricular activities should be free, and things like that. As you gave a list of things that went into
the package, is if you’re going incrementally from the ones that I could agree with to ones
that I think aren’t going to – you know, parenting programs implemented at a large
scale, all of these go directly to the kinds of limitations of the importance of the shared
environment. And, by the way, you should take a look at
the article. It’s a big deal in terms of summarizing a whole lot of evidence. It’s very hard for people to accept the
degree to which kids turn out the way they do for things beyond our control. And I guess
that’s what I’m trying to emphasize, not that we shouldn’t spend any money on this
stuff. Moderate your expectations way, way down because the wiggle room for them affecting
individual kids is much smaller than we previously thought. And here’s what I emphasize. Bob, the brunt
of my remarks was not to emphasize the importance of genetics. It was to emphasize the unimportance
of the shared environment. MR. PUTNAM: But that’s only related to the
importance of genetics. Those percentages you were doing, the 13 percent and 15 percent
were what they were because you were including in the things that you – were part of the
causes, these genetic factors, which were 54 percent and 55 percent in those things.
And if you left out of the debate that, I think you can’t escape it quite so simply
as that. They’re low, though the relevance of those factors, the things we could control
in principle, the relevance of things that have changed – this is the point we know
that there’s – genetics has been around the whole time. MR. MURRAY: Right. But it’s a different
set of causes. MR. PUTNAM: A lot of time – we had a more
egalitarian, greater equality of opportunity before 1960. Both you and I agree. MR. MURRAY: We’re agreeing. I’m saying
that we are looking at the wrong causes, OK? MR. DOAR: OK. MR. MURRAY: The wrong non-genetic causes. MR. DOAR: Right here, in the front row. And
we have one more and then we’re going to be done. Q: Aparna Mathur, AEI. If you’d step back
from the focus on children and we look at aggregate household data, we know from the
CBO that income inequality has been widening tremendously over the last 30 to 40 years. But we also know from the Chetty study that
just came out – or came out earlier last year – that mobility hasn’t changed all
that much and has essentially stagnated over the last 30 to 40 years. So how do you reconcile – you know, your
focus seems to be that we have widening inequality in terms of how we spend on children or how
much people at the top versus the bottom spend on the children. But are you suggesting then
that mobility for children is going to be different? And how do you reconcile that with
the Chetty finding that households really haven’t experienced those changes? MR. PUTNAM: Yeah. That’s a very good question.
And I think the world of Chetty, and we’re colleagues, and we’ve talked about these
things. You have to understand – everybody has to
understand one thing about the relationship between income inequality and opportunity
and inequality of opportunity. Inequality of opportunity lags changes in
income inequality a lot, not just by a minute or two. I mean, a lot of this debate about
the question of the relationship between the so-called Great Gatsby curve and all of that
discussion about the relationship between income inequality and opportunity inequality
assumes that there’s essentially – the lag structure is such that it is very short
in a matter of a year or two. But, actually, the real lag structure between
those two variables in the real world is measured in decades, not in minutes or hours or even
years. And the reason is because – let me go back to Portland, my own hometown. The
factories closed in Portland, and then, 15 years later, the non-martial birthrate increased.
And then, 15 years after that, those kids began to get into school. And then, 15 years
after that, those kids will be far enough along in their life trajectory that we will
know what their lifetime outcome is. The normal way in which mobility has always
been studied is to compare kids’ income when they are in their 30s or 40s with their
parents’ income when they’re in their 30s or 40s. And the fact of the matter is these changes
that I’m describing have occurred relatively recently and, therefore, we shouldn’t – the
kids in my book won’t show up in those standard datasets, you know, measures of mobility,
for another 15 or 20 years. Chetty tries a shortcut of measuring mobility
not based on how income a child has when they’re 30 or 40 – that’s what everybody else
has done – but when they’re much younger, in their 20s. Why haven’t other scholars
used that technique? Because we know that people’s income at age 25, say, is not a
good indicator of their lifetime income. So let me take a very personal example. My
son went to Harvard Law School. And when he was 25, my income was roughly 10 times his
income. And you say, poor John Putnam. He had this tremendous collapse in his – relative
to his parents. Five years later, my son was – or 10 years later, my son was a really
well paid lead lawyer in New York and his income was 10 times my income. And so, if
you measured it then, you’d say, correctly, well, Putnam Jonathan, really did terrific
compared to his – you know, if you think that money matters, and, of course, I do.
(Laughter.) My point is this: Chetty’s idea that mobility
has not changed rests on trying to peek into the future I think with methodologically inappropriate
tools. That is, he’s trying to look at the cake before it’s really baked. You see what
I’m trying to say? And to his credit, Chetty has now backed away
some from that claim that we – he’s right that there wasn’t any change in mobility
among kids who were raised in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, but that’s not what we’re
talking about. So I have a bet with Chetty. When we’re
20 years from now, I’ll take him to a really nice restaurant, and if it turns out that
there’s still no change in mobility, he’ll take me to a really nice restaurant so there
is change in mobility. Since I’m now mid-70s, it may be a bet that he won’t want to take
but not because of his accuracy of his predictions. MR. DOAR: Brett (sp), last question I’m
afraid. Q: So I want to come back to a point you made
actually in your presentation, and that is that many of the trends that we’re sort
of looking at, concerned about today in terms of things like family and religious attendance
actually preceded the economic shifts that you just touched upon in your remarks, that
is that shifts in religious attendance started in the ’60s, as did many trends in the family. And much of the sort of economic inequality
really began to take off in the ’70s, and also shifts, of course, to men’s place in
the workforces, Percy Wilson’s, you know, books have suggested. So I’m just wanting you to talk a bit more
about what you think the cultural dimensions of all of this have been. And, you know, given
that kind of diagnosis, how does that sort of shape our response to growing class divide? And also, just very quickly, to kind of connect
this also to your book, “Bowling Alone,” where, of course, you make the point that
popular culture has played a – in your view, at least in that book, a big role and a declining
role of civic or civil society in America. So how does pop culture finally play a role
in all this too? MR. PUTNAM: Actually, I don’t remember that
I said that pop culture – I said television actually made it. But that’s not – but
not because of the content of television, but we kept it – because we watched television
rather than going bowling. That’s basically the – I’m summarizing a 500-page book
in one sentence. (Laughter.) But I’ll try to respond to the other question,
which is a really important question. If you read “Our Kids,” you’ll see that I agree
that cultural or values change has played an important role in the explanation of the
collapse of the working class family. I don’t disagree with that. That’s one reason actually
why folks on the left are critical of this book because I do say that those cultural
changes have been relevant. I don’t think that they’re the sole explanation
for what’s going on. I do think that the fact that the working class men have had a
terrible time in the job market over the last 30 or 40 years is relevant to the fact, partly
because I think it affects the choices that working class women make about whether they’d
want to marry this guy who’s kind of a loser. Now, the question is, is he a loser because
of cultural changes or is he a loser because of these larger economic changes? I think
it’s mostly the changes in the economy that account for that. But I also agree – and I say that right
here, actually – that I think that the changes in – I’m not sure it’s directly changes
in religion, frankly, but I do think it’s – because there’s not a whole – you
know, we both know this literature. There is good evidence that religious people are
more – are nicer than non-religious people. I tried to make that case, as you know, in
the previous book I wrote. It’s not clear that religious people are necessarily more
likely to abstain from sex than non-religious people. And, well, the debate is – we can
have that debate off camera. What I’m really trying to say is I want
to say it’s both and. These cultural – or the change in norms regarding having kids
and whether you’re responsible for them – that’s the key issue. Do you feel responsible
for your progeny – that is in part, actually, I agree, a cultural or a values issue, but
it’s also I think an economic issue. And I think – you know, this is why I find
this discussion so frustrating, because, actually, there’s a lot we agree on and we could – you
know, this town is a little polarized. (Laughter.) But, actually, if you talk to the experts
in the area, most people agree on the basic facts, and we should be – I want to shift
the focus to the kids and start doing things to help these poor kids. We can have these
debates at the margins but I think there’s a core of things we can all agree on that
would make things better. (Applause.) MR. DOAR: OK. Does anybody have any final
comments? You guys OK? You’re all right? I’d like you all to remain seated as we
go out because we’ve got to go quickly this way. And thank you all very much.

33 Comments on "The American dream in crisis? A discussion with Robert Putnam and Charles Murray"


  1. Charles Murray. So good. Depressing, but honest. One must start with the truth. Truth before idealism. His percentages are essentially impossible to come by with any strict accuracy, but I’m sure they are more than simply symbolic. Charles has been fighting the good fight against an uncomprehending ocean of critics for decades now. So glad to see that he still finds a respected place. Charles Murray is taken seriously by those who are truly interested in these problems.

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  2. I watch these videos and it breaks my heart that the place I went/am going to school won't allow these types of presentations and discussions. That I'm mortgaging $60,000 a year of my future to be told not to ask questions is made more tolerable by knowing that somebody gets to ask them.

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  3. This are exactly the debates which are needed. A great thank you for Hosting the debate and of course uploading it on YouTube so that it can be freely watched and enjoyed.

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  4. Robert Putnam seems to think advantages are all driven by money.
    A lot of the poorer parents have more time available since they don't even go to work.

    A great deal can be done with your children to help them learn and develop that requires very little money but you need time.

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  5. About sports and extracurricular activity: If your kid is failing the all important basics why would you concern yourself with these?

    Also, we spend more per pupil than ever before.

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  6. Income inequality has always existed but the intelligence, behavior, and mental fortitude of the poor has fallen. It can't be just about money.

    I blame government social engineering and the terrible cascading impact.

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  7. I am working and earning a living as I listen to this.
    Is the resentment caused by government force ever mentioned as an influence?

    Forced redistribution causes resentment from both the person it is taken from and the person it is given to compared to voluntary charity.

    Forced integration causes resentment also.

    Can this be filed under obvious but ignored?

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  8. Why should or would middle and upper class people live near poor people with their higher unemployment, drug abuse, crime, and violent crime?

    As a father it would be completely irresponsible of me to have my family live in such an environment if it is at all in my power to do better for them.

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  9. 1:7:46
    It isn't fair.

    Life's not fair. Trying to use violence (the state) to make it fair is guaranteed to fail.

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  10. Regarding Putnam's graphs: there's one major event that happened at the peak of pretty much each of the trends he graphed. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

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  11. I think they are missing feedback loops reinforcing the initial change(s) that started the divergence. So, certainly many of the effects look like causes, because they are, just not the ones that started the downward spiral. Much like economic and ecological systems go past some tipping point that results in acceleration of effects. In such systems crashing is inevitable without a dramatic reset. Regardless, excellent data and well presented.

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  12. wow. Putnam is a stuttering mess and doesn't miss a chance to disparage Murray's findings and belief. Typical of academia, he would probably try and steal all of Murrays work as his own if he could get away with it.

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  13. "Across Age Groups, Whites Fared Worse in Employment Rates" NYT, By Eduardo Porter
    Dec. 16, 2016
    While Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans have millions more jobs now than they did at the labor market’s high-water mark in November 2007, before the economy turned into recession, whites actually lost 700,000 more jobs than they gained. Perhaps it’s just that more whites retired? Not quite.
    The pattern actually looks worse for whites in the decade preceding retirement. (prime voting age) The employment rate of whites from the ages of 55 to 64 declined slightly — to 63.6 percent from 64.1 percent. By contrast, the employment rate of blacks, Hispanics and Asians increased.

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  14. Noam Chomsky: "One big problem is that the white working class has been pretty much abandoned by the political system. The Democrats don’t even try to organize them anymore. The Republicans claim to do it; they get most of the vote, but they do it on non-economic issues, on non-labor issues. They often try to mobilize them on the grounds of issues steeped in racism and sexism and so on."

    Karl Marx said to the First International back in 1867, “in order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labor force.” Or both, we should add.

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  15. it bothers me this conversation is always about the gap and not the absolute quality of life of poor people. if we were to expel all the rich people from the country income inequality would be nearly non existent but everyone would be living in a hell hole.

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  16. It died when Reagan took office and the conservative backlash began. I know. I was there and I watched it… from the union busting to the S&L disasters to Iran Contra. So don't piss down our backs and tell us it's raining, you lying, conservative thugs.

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  17. It is hard to take anything seriously that would include Charles Murray. If the AEI is the sort of conservative think tank I suspect it is, then it is contributing to the very problem it is supposedly seeking to address. Capitalism as it is practiced in the U.S. erodes and undermines family, relationships and community.

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  18. What American dream? I'm American, a nonwhite native. I do not have family or friends that stick together everywhere I look everyone is divided by money and sports teams. Children cant afford to move out. But Immigrants can move in. The dream is not for Americans it's for whites and Immigrants.

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  19. Before 1965 we only imported people from Europe. Then we started taking from the 3rd World. Now we have non-stop invasion from the 3rd World. So expect those numbers to keep plummeting until we're only Slums and Mansions. Divide and Conquer. In the future the police will just take all the money out of your wallet when they pull you over and corpses decapitated by chainsaws will be hung from bridges by drug cartels.

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