Aarhus University guest speaker, Harvard University professor and American political scientist, Robert Putnam, tackles America’s growing inequality gap and highlights the strengths of the Danish welfare system.
By Claudia De Meulemeester
On December 8th, 2014 the alumni network of Aarhus University organized “An Evening with Putnam.” The sold-out event guested Robert D. Putnam, the renowned American political scientist from Harvard University who has served as an advisor for the last three US presidents. In his soon to be released book, “Our Kids –The American Dream in Crisis,” professor Putnam discusses the decline of social mobility in American society and the anti-individualistic options to counter this phenomenon. The past year he has been a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Aarhus University.
The land of milk and honey is no more
Putnam’s take on the American dream cannot be considered very optimistic. The merit-based opportunities that characterize the American dream are losing their solid base, enhancing the gap between rich and poor. The motto “hard work pays off” is becoming less true in contemporary America. Putnam states that even though hard work might have brought unconditional prosperity in the past, this is certainly not the case in present day America. The core element of the American dream seems to have been deteriorating in the last few decades. Putnam argues that the growing possibilities among young Americans have been altered in a way that climbing the social ladder is almost impossible due to a lack of “equality of opportunity and social mobility.” According to Putnam’s research, lower class people in the ’50s and ’60s had a degree of upper mobility (enhancing one’s economic and social situation) that was higher than it is today. That is to say, although in the preceding decades American society had to cope with high levels of racial discrimination, the social classes were connected in an extraordinary way. Presently, instead of overcoming racial segregation the United States risk shifting to a segregated society defined by social class. The malfunction of social integration is influenced by marital, educational and residential factors.
Americans today are more likely to marry someone from a different race or religion, but less likely to marry someone from a different social class.” Robert D. Putnam
Inequality in contemporary American households
The unequal global distribution of wealth is an international discussed and analyzed phenomenon that often leaves the public outraged and powerless. However, in his conference Putnam stressed that inequality in terms of “opportunity and social mobility“ is considered more harmful to American society than the “unbalanced dynamics of income.”
In present day, there is a general pattern where young people have to rely more and more on their parents ( or grandparents) than ever before, incapable of being financially independent. In the United States a successful life is becoming more determined by your parents’ background. As mentioned before, due to a decreasing social mobility hard work does not equal personal growth. Putnam’s research shows that where you come from is way more influential than the capacities you possess. Meaning that if you are born poor, you will probably stay poor for the rest of your life. This class gap that has been created among young Americans is fundamentally unfair and dangerous. A growing polarization between the rich and poor can destabilize national growth and security.
The reasons for this drastic social catastrophe can be found in economic crises that caused working class families to collapse and where fragile communities are left with not enough resources. An individualist mindset that does not embrace a welfare system in which education and health care are promoted for all also contributes to the widening of the gap. In this regard, Putnam even mentioned a reflection of the former first lady:
If you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your house or your job, you have less energy to invest in the kids.” Laura Bush
Putnam states that children who belong to the lower class do not get a fair start in life and that this decision has been made before they were even born. He also warns that underestimating the consequences of child poverty would be a big mistake. Ever more Putnam reminded us that choosing the right parents is a matter of irrational luck.
Denmark’s social safety net
According to Putnam, Denmark is a very egalitarian and communitarian nation with a huge amount of social capital invested. Although criticism and doubts can be raised about the validity of certain statements, Danes are often depicted as being the happiest people on earth and Denmark considered the least corrupt country in the world.
Social trust in Denmark, and generally speaking in all Scandinavian countries, is built upon a system of high tax rates that should benefit every single citizen. In this regard, trust expert and professor at Aarhus University Gert Tinggaard Svendsen comments on Putnam’s conference by elaborating on Danish social policies. Svendsen believes that the US gap described in Putnam’s research is a clear warning to not take the Danish social system for granted. The fact that the state takes care of its citizens by subsidizing public education and therefore supporting young Danes financially throughout their studies is an investment in the country’s future. Svendsen also speaks about a “social self-regulating mechanism” in which trust between citizens and towards government institutions is a must in order to make social dynamics work.
Whether Danish social policies can be expanded to countries like the United States seems unlikely, however they can definitely serve as an example worldwide. Svendsen states that the main criteria to be fulfilled is to convince people that it is in their “long-term self-interest” to invest in social trust. According to Svendsen, cooperation based on trust does not only bring prosperity into the following generations but also happiness and serenity.
United States in need of social cohesion
Svendsen affirms that close interconnectedness between different social classes is preserved in Denmark also via voluntary associations, where people from all sorts of backgrounds come together. Putnam stated that internal social cohesion is an urgent matter for America and that immediate progress in this direction has to be made. If society is not trustworthy (example: income matters more than actual ability) people will isolate themselves and the American dream will not be recuperated. To my question whether Denmark’s social policy (relying on high tax rates with high social trust as outcome) could serve as an example to counter the opportunity gap among young Americans, Putnam answered that America does not necessarily need a “socialist” revolution but a bigger investment in other people kids has to become a crucial point of interest, because “every child deserves a fair start through education.”
Americans need to start caring more about their kids and perceive it as a moral commitment to the society they live in.” Robert D. Putnam
The options that Putnam enumerates to counter the decline of “equality of opportunity and social mobility” (and therefore the American Dream) include: boost wages for low-income workers, a prison reform, higher investments in early childhood development, increased funding for public education, more parental guidance and the mentoring of kids in difficult neighborhoods. Clearly, social care has to be prioritized if the class gap in American society wants to be consolidated. In this regard, the Danish welfare system could serve as an inspiration on how to develop equal opportunities for all children. Moreover, Putnam declared that the growing gap that prevents many young Americans to succeed is the most important problem that should be addressed in the next presidential elections.
Our Kids –The American Dream in Crisis, written by Robert D. Putnam, will be released on March 10, 2015.
Claudia is an aspiring journalist from Belgium and Italy with a background in Linguistics and Literature. She is currently pursuing an Erasmus Mundus Masters degree at Aarhus University. To get the latest from Claudia, follow her on twitter.