Speaking to a full house in Cannon Memorial Chapel, Harvard University sociologist Robert D. Putnam made his case: America has an opportunity gap problem, but we can fix it. Putnam visited the University of Richmond campus for the fourth event in the 2017–18 Jepson Leadership Forum speaker series. He spoke about what he called the growing opportunity gap in the United States.

“Poor kids are not just somebody else’s kids, they are our kids, too,” Putnam told the several hundred people who attended the event.

Putnam, who is the author of more than 15 books translated into 20 languages, focused the presentation on his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. The book explores how gaps in opportunities presented to children who grow up in affluent homes versus in low income homes threaten the American Dream of equal opportunity.

Putnam, who walked through the aisle to speak directly to audience members during the question-and-answer session, used a hand signal to demonstrate two lines on a graph diverging from one point. This symbol, he said, reflects data shown in numerous graphs. His study included involvement in religious organizations, performance in higher education, engagement in extracurricular activities at school, and presence of trusted adults. Across the board, the results showed a gap between children from high income backgrounds and children from low socioeconomic households.

“The idea of an opportunity gap isn’t earth-shattering, but Putnam offered interesting ways to conceptualize and measure the gap,” wrote Sandra J. Peart, dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, in a blog post following the event.

Despite gathering extensive data pointing to the prevalence of the opportunity gap, Putnam remained optimistic about solving it. In both his lecture and in the Take 5 interview he recorded with University of Richmond junior Alicia Jiggetts earlier in the evening, Putnam pointed to a process he managed that brought together experts from different parts of the country and different ideological views to create a report called “Closing the Opportunity Gap.”

“The one I would put first on the list, which is universal early childhood education,” said Putnam. “I think it’s just a no brainer. We know the country will more than get their money back investing in it.”

 The 2017–18 Forum series, Vision and Division, is examining leadership across a variety of current topics, including wealth and social inequality and terrorism. In her blog post, Peart commented, “…this leadership must occur—first and foremost—at the local level since that is where ‘we’ live.”

The Forum series will continue in February with Jessica Valenti’s presentation, “Why Feminism (Still) Matters.”