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Robert Putnam’s Mission

books and culture

Robert Putnam’s Mission

The Bowling Alone author’s prescriptions for closing the opportunity gap have been tried—and found wanting. March 27, 2015
Arts and Culture
Photo by Sarah Gilbert

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $28)

Robert Putnam, policy professor at Harvard and author of the 1990 landmark Bowling Alone, isn’t just a social scientist who writes books. He’s an impresario who kicks off political-social events, including town meetings, tête-à-têtes with top presidential candidates, and high-minded visits to Camp David and the Oval Office. Putnam isn’t shy about his aspirations. He wants to bring attention to “the most important issue in the next presidential election,” as he has told interviewers about his latest book. “I want to change America.”

His new book on the “opportunity gap” between rich and poor children, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, may not live up to its author’s plans but it deserves the attention it’s already getting. Though Our Kids contains little that will be new to informed readers—it’s largely a reiteration of trends revealed in Charles Murray’s 2013 Coming Apart—Putnam’s book nevertheless allows even the jaded a sense of fresh discovery marred only in the final chapter. Our Kids relies on both a series of contrasting interviews with affluent and lower income-children about their families, their schools, and their communities, and an impressive collection of charts giving numerical heft to the differences that emerge from their tales. Adding to the breadth of the book is its geographical range: from Orange County, California to Port Clinton, Ohio, the author’s hometown and from Atlanta, Georgia to Bend, Oregon, a former logging village on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains that has morphed into a resort area with large swaths of poverty.

Andrew, from the right side of the tracks in Bend, is among the affluent kids. His white, married, college-educated parents, a construction business owner and a stay-at-home mother, provide Andrew with material comfort and stability, including annual birthday parties at a family cabin and trips to Hawaii and Europe. They also put Andrew’s development at the center of family life. They follow his education carefully, check his homework, help him fill out summer job applications, pay for guitar lessons, and sit with him at the table for talk-filled family dinners. Now a sophomore in college, Andrew has a life plan: he wants to marry by 25 and have his first child by 30.

So different was the woeful childhood of Elijah, whom Putnam’s researchers met hanging around in a dreary shopping mall in Atlanta, he might as well have grown up in another galaxy. Elijah’s African-American parents broke up when he was an infant and steadily accumulated different partners and children. Elijah was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in a housing project in New Orleans, where he soon became inured to his grandfather’s philandering (“They say my granddad got 36 kids”), beatings, and general neighborhood violence. When Elijah was 13, his mother summoned him to Atlanta to help her raise her year-old twins, the product of a casual sexual encounter. Suspended from school, jailed for burning down a house, hooked on drugs, Elijah has only magical dreams for his future. In reality, he lacks the psychological strengths, the adult support, and the skills to reach beyond his current job as a bagger in a grocery store.

Striking as the contrast between Andrew and Elijah is, Putnam is interested in class and rightfully avoids simple racial and ethnic binaries. Among his low income subjects are the daughters of a single black mother who brings home a modest salary from her job as an office manager, and a white family who have lived over generations in the decaying working-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington. The higher-income kids include the children of an upper middle class black couple from Atlanta, and a white divorcee and business consultant raising her two daughters in a Philadelphia suburb.

Skeptics may be most convinced by Putnam’s graphs and figures. In example after example, Putnam shows the “scissoring” of class-based children’s experiences since 1970 as conditions improved for rich kids and declined for the poor and working class. Extracurricular activities, college attendance and graduation, social trust, church attendance, “developmental activities” with parents like reading, museum-going, family dinners, the number of words they hear, and, of course, having two parents living at home: affluent kids are better off than ever while their disadvantaged peers continue to lose ground. The quality of family life, schools, and communities are mutually reinforcing, leading to success for rich kids and struggle for the poor. The gap, Putnam concludes, is bad for kids, bad for the economy, and—especially given the lack of trust and civic engagement among low-income families—bad for democracy.

Had Putnam ended there, he would have had a powerful book. But in the final chapter—“What is to Be Done?”—the social scientist yields the floor to the missionary in two notable ways. First, quoting Proverbs, Isaiah, and Pope Francis, among others, he reminds us that unequal opportunity “violates our deepest religious and moral values” and rues that we are “ignoring the plight of poor kids.” By Putnam’s own evidence, the charge is a stretch. Almost all of his proposals to close the opportunity gap—reforming sentencing and parole policies so that more fathers remain in their children’s lives and providing quality day care, charter schools, “community schools,” apprenticeship and vocational training, and mentoring programs—are either in experimental use or under serious consideration by legislators. He himself praises the recent proposals of two Republicans, not the party usually associated with worries about inequality, for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit for the benefit of lower- and middle-income Americans.

Nor are his moral exhortations consistent with the numbers. School spending at all levels has gone from 4 percent of GDP in 1984 to 6.1 percent in 2010. Robert Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University estimates the per-capita government spending on means-tested programs has increased by 74 percent between 1975 and 2007. The federal government spends over $800 billion on 92 such programs. Of course, that doesn’t include the billions doled out to nonprofit groups by grant officers at the country’s thousands of philanthropies. And, all along, inequality has risen.

It’s still possible that the money and effort are not sufficient to the scope of the problem. It’s also possible that while government efforts may have helped to keep people out of poverty, erasing the opportunity gap is beyond the reach of conventional public policy. Putnam makes great claims for the “remarkable” gains from several preschool programs. He is right that a few select programs have shown long-term benefits by improving graduation and teen-pregnancy rates. These are important and cost-beneficial results. They also will do little to change class outcomes.

Putnam begins his book with a touching memory of his graduation from Port Clinton High School in 1959. It was a largely white class—only two of the 150 students were black—but the poor and rich went to class and played sports together. That’s a rare occurrence in today’s class-segregated society, as Charles Murray also underscored two years ago in Coming Apart. Putnam never mentions Murray or his book in the text of Our Kids.

It’s a striking omission for a book so politically adept and morally urgent.

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