Reflecting on the chances for upward mobility in light of a widening opportunity gap, Harvard’s Robert Putnam states simply: “Any notion that you can ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps’ sounds ridiculous now.”
Long a champion for bipartisan policy responses to inequality, Putnam received a grant from the Foundation last year to convene working groups composed of interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners from across the political divide in order to identify evidence-based ideas to reduce inequality in youth opportunities. This initiative, dubbed “Closing the Opportunity Gap” grew out of Putnam’s research for his 2015 book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which tells stories of young people and families who are struggling across the country—families about whom Putnam says, “No one can read their stories and say it was their fault.”
Putnam suggests that in post-war America children across the spectrum of income and class could find opportunities, and communities encouraged all children to succeed. But the unraveling of working class neighborhoods and the decline of a collective sense of responsibility for “our kids” has led to plummeting prospects for the next generation of Americans. “Because we all live in bubbles today, whether we are affluent, middle class, or working class, we don’t really know each other, and what’s worse, have lost empathy for one another,” says Putnam. And this has serious implications for kids and their opportunities.
Closing the Opportunity Gap Initiative
In designing the initiative, Putnam focused his efforts on the state and local community level, saying, “We need national policy changes, but we can start locally, where polarization is less intense and where there is more of a likelihood of people reaching across party lines.” The initiative’s working groups focused on key areas drawn from Putnam’s research and conversations with leaders from communities around the country. Each group worked on one of five topics:
- Promoting Stable Families and Effective Parents
- Promoting Opportunity in Early Childhood
- Increasing Equality of Opportunity in and out of School, Grades K-12
- Rebuilding Communities to Help Close the Opportunity Gap
- On-ramps for Success
After days of deliberations based on a set of readings that ensured a common starting point for discussion, the groups aimed to deliver straightforward, evidence-based guidance that could inform policy responses to inequality. They were charged with answering a deceptively simple question:
Suppose a community foundation president or a mayor or a governor or an archbishop or the CEO of a local business or nonprofit said “I’m convinced we need to narrow the opportunity gap here in my city. What are the first things I need to know about possible solutions or avenues of approach?”
Earlier this year, each working group published papers documenting their conclusions, which were then compiled in a full report. Some of the recommendations made by the working groups, each of which had bipartisan support, include:
- Family-friendly policies such as paid family leave and paid sick leave.
- Economic supports such as extending the Child Tax Credit, increasing the subsidies for childcare for low-and middle-income working mothers, and improving parents’ education and skills.
- An emphasis on relationship stability among young adults and encouragement for women to forge identities beyond motherhood.
- Supplementing the K-12 curricula through after-school programs, wraparound student support, tutoring, and a stronger school-to-work linkage.
- Providing opportunities for long-term, supported mobility out of highly disadvantaged communities.
- Smoothing the transitions both between high school and community college and between community college and four-year college.
Recognizing the scope of the challenge ahead, Putnam states “It’s not just schools or parents or churches that are going to make a substantive change in the lives of American youth, it’s all of them. There isn’t one magic bullet.” But the advantage of focusing on the local level is that the potential to address interconnected problems is greater when you can work across departments and agencies—“You can’t improve the quality of public schools, for example, without also taking into account neighborhood factors, such as concentrated poverty,” he says.
From acknowledging the complexity of the problem to identifying specific leverage points that may yield positive change in the lives of kids and families across the country, expanding opportunity will not be easy. But Putnam’s research and the initiative that has grown out of it might well be a beacon for all who are working toward this goal. Despite the noise of an election season, leaders from across the political spectrum have come together as part of this initiative to consider the evidence, to draw the starting line, and to signal the way forward. And their work has the potential to shape what’s to come, not just for our kids, but for anyone with a stake in the future of the nation.
Robert Putnam is the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.