Is the American Dream in Crisis? LinkedIn Speaker Series With Professor Robert D. Putnam

August 26, 2015

LinkedIn Speaker Series Robert Putnam

Having a home full of books and a mother who was a teacher led me to love reading from an early age. When I was in kindergarten, my hand always shot up when my teachers asked for volunteers to read out loud. I vividly remember feeling confident and wanting to read more, a positive cycle that helped me succeed through school. Fast forward to adulthood, and I realize that I was set up for success at a very young age, an opportunity many kids never have.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Professor Robert D. Putnam, author of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” speak with Reid Hoffman at our LinkedIn Speaker Series. Professor Putnam spoke about the widening opportunity gap between “rich” and “poor” children. His research shows that “rich” kids come from homes with at least one college-educated parent, whereas “poor” kids often lack parents with college educations. “Rich” kids have significantly more access to extracurricular activities, high-quality schools, and healthy networks. “Poorer” kids, on the other hand, have little to no access to those same benefits, and this trend is increasing with time. These kids also lack what he calls “social airbags,” the basic layers of protection more affluent kids have to prevent life-changing mistakes.

To put some of this into perspective, Putnam highlighted that reading to children at an early age is a huge indicator of whether or not they’ll achieve academic success. Children from lower-income families, however, may not have parents to read to them. The parent might spend much of their mental energy and time on figuring out how to put food on the table and pay the rent.

“How can one expect a parent to make the time to read to their child if basic needs like food and shelter are barely being met?”

At the same time this is happening, there are wealthier families providing any and everything to their children; nannies, daycare, preschool, bedtime reading, etc. The success gap has already widened significantly by the time kindergarten has commenced: the low-income child is already playing catch-up, while the affluent kid is on grade-level or even ahead. This gap only worsens with time. Furthermore, a recent Washington Post article highlights that the gap is even wider between poor Whites and poor African-Americans, as the latter group often faces a “double burden” of poverty due to systematic discrimination.

Putnam believes that the American dream is broken. How well you do in life should depend on your own hard work and skills, not on what your parents did or whether or not they are successful.

While there are significant policy changes that he believes need to be in place (e.g. universal early childhood education), there are ways that you and I can help low-opportunity kids today. They often lack “social navigators:” mentors like you and me to lay a foundation of opportunity for them. Your academic, career, and general life insight is crucial to their success. Volunteer, read to children, become a mentor, share your story and be a role model to others.

I’ll be committing to mentoring a low-opportunity youth, and I’d like to invite you to do the same. Help these youth access the same opportunities you had when you were younger -- it can transform their lives.

You can watch the LinkedIn Speaker Series below and be sure to visit for more information on how you can help.