Robert Putnam on economic mobility and Great Recession

Flickr photo by bupowski

Robert Putnam was on the NewsHour yesterday in a story by Paul Solman on how inequality and decreasing economic mobility are affecting Americans even as the economy modestly recovers out of the Great Recession.

Excerpt:

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the American dream — your kids will do better than you — neither you nor your kids think that that`s the case?

COOKIE SHEERS: No, we all feel stuck in a rut. You feel like you can`t move, you can’t grow, like you’re just at that edge of water where you can come up for air every few minutes, but never long enough to feel that you have accomplished something. You always have to go back down.

BOBBY HICKS: Like she says, I feel like, once I feel like I have reached that part where my nostrils can come out the top, life comes back and just steps right on my face and says: You know what? It’s not time for you to come up for air yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: The numbers support the stories. Economic inequality in America, widening steadily since 1980, grew during the financial crisis, with the top 5 percent of Americans owning 65 percent of national wealth by mid-2009, up from 62 percent two years before. The losers were the bottom 80 percent, whose share of wealth fell during the crisis. Nearly half had negative net worth by mid-2009….But, at least historically, there was always the very real hope of moving up, at least across generations.

ROBERT PUTNAM, Harvard University: That isn’t true anymore….So, one of our competitive advantages as a — as a society, which used to be that we were very mobile, and we were constantly getting new infusions of talent and so on at the top, and — and that people down near the bottom had a hope that, if they didn’t do well, their kids could do well in the past in America.

That a poor kid could grow up in a tenement, go off to city college, do well, and himself end up in the next generation pretty well-off, that’s what’s becoming less likely in America. And I think that undermines a crucial part of the American myth or the American dream or the American social contract.

PAUL SOLMAN: Adds economist Sam Bowles:

SAMUEL BOWLES, Santa Fe Institute: America is distinct in the extent to which inequality is inherited from generation to generation. The kids of rich parents have a strong tendency to be rich, and the kids of poor parents are very, very likely to be poor. That’s one of the things which I think Americans find most shocking. That’s a huge discrepancy from what we think of as the land of opportunity.

Even a college-education, the key ingredient in economic mobility, doesn’t seem to immunize Americans from these economic problems:

DENISE BARRANT: In our family, everybody is college-educated. Most of us have masters’. Myself, I’m unemployed. My brother is unemployed. People used to think it was a guarantee. It is not. To invest $200,000- plus in an education, with no guarantee that you have a job, is scary.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for Bobby Hicks’ job, it’s inequality, he says, that makes it possible.

BOBBY HICKS: In the security industry, you know, there is a demand for jobs, because the rich want to protect their assets.

PAUL SOLMAN: But those jobs are low-pay and low-prestige, despite the high stakes.

BOBBY HICKS: A pressure release valve for the domestic water in the building broke. And there was water flooding, and this was on the sixth floor. If their servers got wet, it would have wiped out the entire East Coast for this one particular company — and Bob, $9 an hour, to the rescue. Make the call, count on you, all right? But, if I screwed up, you’re gone.

Listen to NewsHour segment by Paul Solman “Many Americans Feel ‘Stuck in a Rut’ as Economy Improves but Inequality Grows” (3/24/11).

Note: the story is factually incorrect in claiming that Robert Putnam helped run Harvard’s Inequality Program.  He has never done that and Bruce Western runs Harvard’s Inequality Project currently, but Harvard’s Kennedy School Saguaro Seminar which Putnam leads has been undertaking a 4-5 year investigation of a growing youth social class gap.

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