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Why fewer American kids will get a chance at upward mobility


America, your kids are in trouble.  The economy has been hollowed out. The middle class is disappearing. You're either a "have" or a "have not."  And social mobility is far from a given.

Consider this:

  • The share of adults in middle-income households has fallen from 61% in 1970 to 51% in 2013.  Each of the 50 states has seen its share of middle-class families shrink in that same period.

  • In 1970, 65% of U.S. families lived in middle income neighborhoods. Four decades later, only 42% of families live in such neighborhoods. 

  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans consider inequality a problem, and 69% of them say the government should act “to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.”

It's a big divide, and it's growing. In his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," author Robert Putnam says the "work hard, get a good education, find success" equation doesn't add up for many children. Parental involvement and education are key factors, and lower-income families are left behind.

That's because of the "30- or 40-year stagnation in terms of wages and jobs" that has put pressure on "what we used to call the working class," says Putnam. Getting ahead is hard when you're barely getting by. He cites data that tracks the success of kids later in life based on the education and marital status of their parents as well as on how much time parents spend reading to them or eating dinner together.  Those activities tend to be more common in higher-income households with two highly-educated parents.

But this is a problem for all families, says Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard. “This is not a zero-sum game where if we help one kid it’s going to hurt my kid. Quite the contrary,” says Putnam, also author of "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community."  "The economic data is very clear. It’s costly to the economy — the whole economy — for us to have 23 million young people in America not potentially contributing members of the economy.”

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Based on Putnam’s research, the problem cuts roughly 4% a year from the U.S. gross national product. “It costs a lot of money in terms of the criminal justice system. It costs a lot of money in terms of the health system. And it costs a lot of money in terms of productivity of the American economy,” he says.

Putnam points out the divide is not about race or religion. He says while the country has made progress in bridging the racial and religious gap, the social divide has grown and that perpetuates the problem.

“Racial segregation or religious segregation over the last 30 years has declined," says Putnam.  Therefore, he says, "we’re more likely to know people or to live near people or to go to school with people or to marry people of a different race or religion.”  But at the same time, “we’re less likely to live near people or to go to school with people or to marry people from a different social class background. That means America is increasingly living in separate spheres.”

Putnam says while there has been a lot of talk in the media about the growing income gap among adults, there’s been a lot less talk about what that trend is doing to kids.  And we need to start a conversation on a national and local level.

Solutions include universal preschool on the state and national levels, he says, and mentoring programs and activities that bring families of different social classes together on the local level.

Hear more of what Robert Putnam has to say in the video above.

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