A generation of children are growing up with a starker divergence in opportunities than ever before: a trend that will take its toll on every aspect of their adult life.
Bath’s Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy and Institute for Policy Research (IPR), together with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, hosted Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy and author of the acclaimed Bowling Alone and recently published Our Kids, along with a high-profile panel of academics, business leaders and policy-makers, to discuss what can be done.
End of the American Dream
Putnam described how equality of opportunity among American children has been eroded over three generations. Today, for those born to mothers with only a High School education the future looks increasingly bleak. America, as Putnam describes it, is “pulling apart” along class lines – it is increasingly divided by class, by education, and by marital status. The American Dream, founded on the ideal of equal opportunity for all, is rapidly breaking down, across an array of outcomes covering economic circumstances (earnings and incomes), relationships (stable marriages) and health (obesity).
As Putnam explained, today in the US, set against the core value of equality of opportunity, we know that it’s parents’ income, not ability, that’s critical in determining whether their children will get a college degree.
College-educated parents are increasingly investing in their children, and the gap between them and those with lower educated parents has grown rapidly. The last 30 years have seen increased differences by class in the amount of time parents invest in children, the number of enrichment activities they take part in, the likelihood of having a family dinner together (important to Putnam ’s ‘cultural capital’). The opportunities presented to children of working class parents have rapidly fallen behind those of the middle classes.
Why have children’s opportunities been polarised?
The collapse of the economy for the working class is in part responsible, but so too is the fraying of family bonds. Seventy per cent of children with parents of high school education or lower live in lone parent families. And the evidence, according to Putnam, tells us that children in lone parent families fare less well than those who grow up with both parents – it is quite simply easier to raise a child with two parents. Economic and family instability are intrinsically intertwined.
But there are wider social changes at play that matter too. The societal bonds that have in the past protected all our children are now unravelling. Children are no longer seen as the responsibility of all, but more narrowly their parents. This individualisation of responsibility has implications for all as the provision of public investments for children – whether in play parks or swimming pools – has shrunk. This has dramatic implications for the opportunities of children from lower social classes and the numbers taking part in extracurricular activities has withered. Community is in decline - church attendance is falling and social trust is being eroded.
What lessons are there for the UK?
The growing gulf for children in the US is divided by parent’s educational attainment, but in the UK there are grounds to be less pessimistic. Higher education continues to expand, and, while average earnings have fared poorly since 2007, in the last year real pay has begun to grown again. The compelling US narrative, of a world where the classes are pulling apart, has less resonance for the UK.
However, although the UK economy is beginning to grow, analysis by Gavin Kelly (Chief Executive of the Resolution Trust) shows that there are problems ahead – earnings mobility remains low, the low paid increasingly remain so for long periods of time, and the earnings of young people are falling behind. In-work poverty also looks set to increase as the number of people working very short hours is set to grow, while incentives to work shrink.
When should public policy intervene?
The case for greater intervention in the early years, Putnam argues, is overstated. Instead he puts the case for public policy interventions to tackle problems at different stages of the lifecycle, with individuals showing remarkable capacity to adapt and learn throughout their lifetime. Former Minister, David Willetts (now Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation) argued at our recent event that limited public finances means that policy should focus on problems once they become obvious. Interventions in early childhood, before problems emerge, may be a costly means of intervention.
Social mobility is a political problem, says Putnam, and he is optimistic that it is something that it is not beyond the wit of policy makers to fix. His suggestions for reform are wide-ranging, from interventions in the labour markets and criminal justice system; to policies to intervene in the early years to support families and to invest in public education. Finding a solution will require determination from policy makers.
While Putnam believes there are grounds for optimism what remains certain is that the issues of social mobility will remain firmly on the policy agenda over the next decade across the trans-Atlantic divide.
Professor Putnam, David Willetts, Gavin Kelly, Sacha Romanovitch (CEO of Grant Thornton) Dr Liz Washbrook and Professor Alissa Goodman took part in Child Poverty and Social Mobility: Lessons for Research and Policy which took place in Westminster, London on Thursday 8 October. See the Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy for information on forthcoming seminars.