What: The Nancy R. Chandler Visiting Scholar Program of the COCC Foundation presents Dr. Robert D. Putnam
When: 6:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Bend High School auditorium, 230 NE Sixth St.
Where else: The event will also be live-streamed and available free at all other COCC branch campuses: Crook County Open Campus, PRI Room 130, 510 SE Lynn Blvd, Prineville; Madras Campus, Community Room, 1170 SE Ashwood Road; Redmond Campus, RTEC 209, 2324 SE College Loop
Contact: cocc.edu/foundation/vsp or 541-383-7257
Respected author and scholar Robert D. Putnam uses empirical data and poignant testimonies to explore the nation’s growing social and economic gaps in his best-selling book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” and one chapter is devoted to the difference between two children raised on Bend’s east and west sides.
Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, a past dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, winner of the prestigious international Skytte Prize in 2006 and recipient of the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2012. He cofounded the Saguro Seminar, which develops actionable ideas for civic renewal and has also published 14 previous books.
“I knew that inequality was rising in America, and I wanted to know what effect that would have on kids,” Putnam said. “My focus on kids was my window into the broader inequality in America. The point of the book is that today, your future doesn’t depend on your talent and ability. It’s primarily dependent on the lottery of birth and who your parents are.”
The best-selling book explores why fewer Americans have the opportunity for upward mobility, putting the idealized American Dream far beyond their reach. Putnam’s research and the stories he shares from communities all around America show that over the past 25 years, fewer and fewer people in the U.S. have gone on to live better lives than their parents. This poses disturbing questions about the future of the country.
Putnam will discuss “Our Kids,” the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor in America and what can be done to combat this issue at an event coordinated by the Nancy R. Chandler Visiting Scholar Program of the Central Oregon Community College Foundation on Monday.
Putnam says he feels much more personally involved in this book than any of his previous work. This is because his inspiration for the book was the decline he observed in family stability and economic and educational opportunities in the town of Port Clinton, Ohio, where he was raised in the 1950s and ‘60s. Very few children there today have the chance that Putnam did — to rise from a working class or lower middle-class household and achieve success and prosperity.
In addition to the stories of the families of Putnam’s high school friends from Port Clinton, the author includes contrasting stories of rich and poor children from Atlanta, Orange County, California; Philadelphia and Bend to dramatically illustrate the issues his research has uncovered.
“I don’t want people to think we’re picking on Bend — I really, really like Bend,” Putnam said. “People in my own hometown of Port Clinton thought I was picking on them in the book and were a little miffed. The kids from Bend profiled in the book just happen to really illustrate the gap in experiences between rich kids and poor kids that’s playing out all over America.”
In chapter two of “Our Kids,” Putnam traces the lives of “Andrew” and “Kayla” (their real names are not used to protect their identities), who have very different experiences growing up in Bend. Andrew benefits from an affluent upbringing with a stable and supportive family. He graduates from Summit High School, goes on to college and hopes to return to Bend after graduation and become a firefighter rather than work for his father’s company.
Kayla lives at or below the poverty line throughout her life. Her family could not afford to buy a cake to celebrate her 10th birthday. Her parents divorce, and her family life during her teenage years is chaotic, with her mother largely absent. This leaves Kayla with deep-seated feelings of isolation and mistrust, and no clear vision for her future. She attends Marshall High School and a Job Corps training program and struggles to attend community college or find work after high school while also caring for her ill father.
But why should Kayla and Andrew’s stories matter to others in Bend and beyond?
“This goes to the whole core of what it means to be American,” Putnam said. “In 1776, we were revolting against aristocracy. The idea that how well you do in life should depend on you and your own hard work and not on your parents is almost a sacred value in America. It’s the equality of opportunity. But there’s never been a period before in American history when people’s chances in life have been so dependent on what their parents did or didn’t do,” Putnam said.
According to Putnam’s research, not investing in low-income children and creating a large subclass that aren’t going to contribute to the economy, will cost the U.S. $1 trillion over the lifetime of this current generation and cause political and social instability.
Putnam is hopeful, though. Communities throughout the U.S. are designing and implementing programs to combat the effects of economic inequality. Putnam recently starred in the four-part Public Broadcasting Service miniseries “Our Kids: Narrowing the Opportunity Gap,” which aired in April and looks at some of these solutions. His presentation in Bend is a continuation of this effort to help spread awareness of the problem and potential solutions.
“The way America can begin to fix problems like that is by beginning at the grass roots, and I’m very optimistic about that,” Putnam said. “My role is not to tell you what’s right and wrong with Bend. It’s to help frame the problem by saying ‘here’s what’s happening nationally, and here are some contacts and resources you can reach out to if you want to try and do some of these things locally.’”