Opportunity no longer knocks for the poor

June 1, 2015
MARK PATTISON
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Author Robert Putnam said the "inequality of opportunity" in the United States is leading to a sense of despair and isolation among the nation's poor.

Putnam, a political science professor at Harvard University, said about 80 per cent of students in his high school graduating class of 1959 in Port Clinton, Ohio, did better than their parents.

"Those who came from the bad side of the tracks did just about as well as those who came from the good."

But in the Port Clinton of today, much has changed. The town's east side, where the factories had been, is now "a ghost town," Putnam said May 11 during a presentation at a conference at Georgetown University on overcoming poverty.

Pollution in Lake Erie took away the fishing jobs upon which so many people had depended, he said.

Putnam has been charting the strength of the American social fabric since his 1995 book Bowling Alone. His latest book is Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

The "opportunity gap" is growing more pronounced between children of college-educated parents and the children of parents who advanced only as far as high school, he said.

There's a 7-to-1 gap in the amount of money spent on enrichment activities such as summer camps and music lessons. Family time with young children was roughly the same for both groups in 1980, but now there is a 7-to-2 ratio in favour of the better-educated.

Even Church attendance is better among the better educated, Putnam said: 28 per cent and dipping slightly, compared to 20 per cent and sinking at a faster rate for children from high school-educated families.

Putnam said the gap is growing because of the "collapse of the working-class family," economic insecurity among poor families, and a frayed social safety net.