The American dream in crisis? A discussion with Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, and William Julius Wilson

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Event Summary

In “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), political scientist Robert Putnam illustrates the increasing inequality between rich and poor Americans over recent decades through empirical evidence and evocative narratives. On Monday, AEI hosted Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, and William Julius Wilson in a discussion moderated by Robert Doar to debate the implications of these trends for American children.

Putnam described evidence over the last 40 years that demonstrates a growing gap between the upper third of American society, those with a college degree, and the lower third, those with only a high school diploma. Due to 20th century trends in social capital, income inequality, political consensus, union membership, and share of wealth, America, as Putnam declared, has become “two separate societies.”

Is a change in public policy the solution to closing the opportunity gap? Murray declared, “A civic great awakening has about as much of a chance of working as policy.” Genes, shared environment, and non-shared environment are all significant factors in how our children develop; yet shared environment, Murray suggested, seems to be the least impactful. Although Wilson agreed with Putnam’s argument, he emphasized the importance of focusing on interracial income disparities. Wilson also strongly argued that it is unjust that a child’s race and parental income can predict his or her future.

Putnam, Murray, and Wilson concluded that the American Dream is, in fact, in crisis. However, the solution may call for more than a change in policy.

— Jane Brady Knight

Event Description

In his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Robert Putnam describes an America that is increasingly separate and unequal along class lines: Children from wealthy families enjoy the benefits of stable two-parent families who invest heavily in their development, deep and positive social networks, and a knowledge economy. Poor and working-class kids, however, increasingly navigate broken families, the absence of adult role models, and an economy with fewer well-paying jobs for those with low levels of education. And more and more, the two groups don’t mix.

To what extent is this analysis of opportunity in America correct and cause for concern? What role do culture and public policy play in these trends? And how should individuals, community members, and policymakers respond? Join AEI and three of America’s most prominent social scientists for a discussion of these important questions.

If you are unable to attend, we welcome you to watch the event live on this page. Full video will be posted within 24 hours.


11:45 AM
Registration and lunch

12:00 PM
Robert Doar, AEI

12:05 PM
Robert Putnam, Harvard University

12:30 PM
Charles Murray, AEI
William Julius Wilson, Harvard University

12:50 PM
Charles Murray, AEI
Robert Putnam, Harvard University
William Julius Wilson, Harvard University

Robert Doar, AEI

1:10 PM

Robert Doar, AEI

1:30 PM

Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Claire Rossi-de Vries at [email protected] or 202.862.4874.

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries, please contact [email protected], 202.862.5829

Speaker Biographies

Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at AEI, where he studies and evaluates how free enterprise and improved federal policies and programs can reduce poverty and provide opportunities for vulnerable Americans. Before joining AEI, Doar worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg as commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, where he administered 12 public assistance programs, including welfare, food assistance, public health insurance, and help for people living with HIV/AIDS. Before joining the Bloomberg administration, Doar was New York State commissioner of social services, helping make New York a model for the implementation of welfare reform.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI. He first came to national attention in 1984 with the publication of “Losing Ground” (Basic Books), which has been credited as the intellectual foundation for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. His 1994 New York Times bestseller, “The Bell Curve” (Free Press), coauthored with the late Richard J. Herrnstein, sparked heated controversy for its analysis of the role of the intelligence quotient in shaping America’s class structure. Murray’s other books include “What It Means to Be a Libertarian” (Broadway Books, 1997), “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950” (HarperCollins, 2003), “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State” (AEI Press, 2006), “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality” (Three Rivers Press, 2008), “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010” (Crown Forum, 2012), “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: The Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life” (Crown Forum, 2014), and, most recently, “By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission” (Crown Forum, 2015).

Robert Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the British Academy, past president of the American Political Science Association, and recipient of the 2012 National Humanities Medal. He has written 14 books, including “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” (Touchstone Books, 2001), “Making Democracy Work” (Princeton University Press, 1994) “Better Together: Restoring the American Community” (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and “American Grace” (Simon & Schuster, 2012), which considers the role of religion in American public life. His most recent book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), focuses on the growing class gap among American youth and the implications for social mobility.

William Julius Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. Past president of the American Sociological Association and MacArthur Prize Fellow from 1987 to 1992, Wilson was awarded the 1998 National Medal of Science and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Education, American Philosophical Society, Institute of Medicine, and British Academy. He is the author of numerous publications, including “The Declining Significance of Race” (University of Chicago Press, 1978), “The Truly Disadvantaged, When Work Disappears” (Vintage, 2011), “The Bridge over the Racial Divide” (University of California Press, 2001), and “More than Just Race” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).

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