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How Realistic Is The American Dream?

Marcus Charleston
International public policy expert Robert D. Putnam

Wealthy, poorly educated students are still statistically more likely to do well in college than poorer children with higher ambitions and intellectual aptitude. Income inequality and class divides are some of the most significant problems facing American society, according to public policy expertRobert D. Putnam.

As part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Year of the Humanity series, Putnam will be giving a speech called, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, based on his book of the same name.  In it, he examines the issues born out of the growing income gap in America and the complex set of accompanying issues it presents. Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer spoke with Putnam about his speech and the message he hopes to convey.

Our Kids promotes the notion that America is becoming an increasingly segregated society. This segregation, however, is not based upon race or religion as it was often in the past, but on social class.

“Increasingly, rich folks are living in enclaves with other rich folks, and poor folks are living increasingly concentrated in poor enclaves,” Putnam said.  “Many fewer of us are living in mixed or moderate income neighborhoods.”

This division based on wealth is creating many problems for America. Children from poorer families are less likely to have upwards-social mobility. To achieve their academic goals, such as graduating college, the less-wealthy students must work significantly harder than their richer, less-academically-inclined peers.

Putnam claims America has become more of an “I” than a “we” society. People seem solely concerned with their own children and rarely consider the welfare of all the kids in their neighborhood. This negligence is not born out of malice, he explains, but rather ignorance.

“I think probably most college educated Americans simply don’t have any idea how awful the lives that these poor kids nowadays are living,” he said.

Putnam compared the modern crisis with the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Like now, the Gilded Age saw large income gaps and oppressive conditions for poorer people.

Furthermore, Putnam believes the modern state of affairs can be remedied through a method similar to what happened to improve conditions during the Gilded Age. In 1910, America invented universal high school, giving all children access to four years of secondary education for free.

“It turned out to be the best public policy decision ever made,” he said, further stating that this well-educated populace led to most of America’s economic growth throughout the 20th century.

Putnam says that America must make a similar investment, only instead of higher education, early childhood education should be the focus. When it comes down to it, he warns, the issue is whether America will “pay now, or pay later.”

“If we don’t fix these problems, it’s gonna mean much higher criminal justice expenses and much higher health system expenses,” he said, a sum which is estimated to cost $5 trillion.

“So, we’re all going to be better off if we make this investment.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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