Beginning with stories from his high school class of 1959 in Port Clinton, Ohio, Robert D. Putnam weaves a larger tale of the increasing opportunity gap for upward mobility in America in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam, the renowned political scientist and author of Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, draws both on the poignant life stories of rich and poor kids from cities and suburbs across the country and on rigorous evidence from research that was carried out for this book. The result is a powerful examination of how the America we believe in—a nation in which “our kids” have a reasonable chance to improve their lot in life—is tragically breaking apart. 

How did we get here? This opportunity gap has widened for a number of reasons. What stands out in Putnam’s narrative is the notion that people of different economic and social backgrounds used to know each other. They went to school together, played sports together, and engaged in extracurricular activities together in high school. Exposure to and interaction with each other benefitted both those who were already advantaged and those who weren’t. Children with grit and talent moved up—educationally, socially, and economically—at similar rates. Adults on both sides of the economic fence interacted with and provided guidance and help to the youth of the community. They considered all of them, collectively and individually, to be “our kids.” 

Over the last couple of generations, Putnam’s research reveals, people who are more economically and educationally advantaged have separated themselves into isolated suburbs where they focus single-mindedly on the success of their own children. In these communities, a lack of exposure to people unlike themselves bears the insidious fruit of diminishing compassion and gratitude. On the other side, less economically advantaged children are often left with no vision of how to work for their dreams, and little opportunity to do so. 

Ultimately, in Our Kids, Putnam sees this continuing opportunity gap between rich kids and poor kids in America as a moral failure. When the adults in a community choose not to interact with people who are unlike themselves, everybody loses—especially our kids. “We don’t have to believe in perfect equality of opportunity to agree that our religious and moral codes demand more equality of opportunity than we have now,” he concludes.

-Missy G. Flinn