In “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), political scientist Robert Putnam illustrates the increasing inequality between rich and poor Americans over recent decades through empirical evidence and evocative narratives. On Monday, AEI hosted Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, and William Julius Wilson in a discussion moderated by Robert Doar to debate the implications of these trends for American children.
Putnam described evidence over the last 40 years that demonstrates a growing gap between the upper third of American society, those with a college degree, and the lower third, those with only a high school diploma. Due to 20th century trends in social capital, income inequality, political consensus, union membership, and share of wealth, America, as Putnam declared, has become “two separate societies.”
Is a change in public policy the solution to closing the opportunity gap? Murray declared, “A civic great awakening has about as much of a chance of working as policy.” Genes, shared environment, and non-shared environment are all significant factors in how our children develop; yet shared environment, Murray suggested, seems to be the least impactful. Although Wilson agreed with Putnam’s argument, he emphasized the importance of focusing on interracial income disparities. Wilson also strongly argued that it is unjust that a child’s race and parental income can predict his or her future.
Putnam, Murray, and Wilson concluded that the American Dream is, in fact, in crisis. However, the solution may call for more than a change in policy.