Harvard Professor Robert Putnam on Rich/Poor Opportunity Gap: Kids Need Two Parents, Churches Can Do More Than Government (CP Interview 2/2)

(Photo: Simon & Schuster)Book cover for Robert Putnam's "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," (2015).

Churches and other religious groups can play an important role in reducing the opportunity gap between rich and poor kids in the United States, professor Robert Putnam said in an interview with The Christian Post about his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

While churches already play an important role by promoting the importance of marriage, they can do more by getting involved in the lives of the poor children in crisis, explained Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and the author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010) with Notre Dame professor David Campbell, and the bestselling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).

In part one of his CP interview, Putnam spoke about the isolation from family, churches and community experienced by poor children, or the bottom one-third of all children in the United States, and he responded to comparisons made with Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012).

In this part two of his CP interview, Putnam responds to a review of the book published in The Wall Street Journal. Professor Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, praised the book for offering a powerful and poignant account, with "considerable empirical support," of the problems faced by poor children due to the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor. Putnam, does not, however, give "adequate weight" to the cultural shifts, such as the decline of marriage, that led to that gap, Wilcox added.

Putnam also spoke about school choice reform proposals. In the book, Putnam places much emphasis on education reforms. He did not, however, advocate school choice, a reform offered by many conservatives as a way to help close the opportunity gap. In his CP interview, Putnam explained that he does not have an ideological opposition to school choice but he has seen no evidence that school choice would help close the opportunity gap.

Here is a transcript, lightly edited for length, of that interview:

CP: Professor Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, wrote a review of the book for The Wall Street Journal. He argued that you didn't give enough weight to the role that marriage can play in reducing the class differences you describe. What's your response to Wilcox?

Putnam: I don't think it's true. To the contrary, I have a whole chapter about family structure. I'm speechless. Many people think I've given too much attention to family structure.

Wilcox's review was a very kind review. And he believes the collapse of marriage among the working class is an important part of the problem, and so do I. If you read the book, that's what I say. The first substantive chapter is a long chapter about how marriage has changed, how the structure of the working class family has changed, and how that's bad for kids.

CP: To address that [decline of marriage], there's probably not much government can do, right? Are we talking about a cultural shift that needs to happen?

(Photo: Martha Stewart)Robert Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Putnam: I think, yes. There have been people who have talked about the government somehow promoting marriage. I wouldn't be opposed to that in principle, but the problem is we don't know any way to do that.

The programs that have been tried — this is not a disagreement, I actually don't think that Brad Wilcox and I have that much disagreement — the programs that have tried to promote marriage and family stability and so on, most people agree they haven't had the effect that people hoped they would have. So, I agree, it's not easy to see what government can do about the marriage issue.

But I do think that putting more cultural emphasis on the fact that kids need two parents — kids need stability in the family environment. In so far as there is increasing instability in the family life of poor kids, there clearly is, we ought to do something about that.

I think that might be more a domain that churches, frankly, can play a role in — reemphasizing the importance of not having kids unless you have a stable partner that you're prepared to live with and raise those kids with.

I don't quite have a magic wand for doing that, because, as you well know, the culture has changed a lot.