A book by one of America’s leading scholars was published a few months ago, Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis, by the sociologist Robert Putnam. Putman is an eloquent and renowned writer and researcher. He is, as the New York Times wrote in a review of Our Kids, “technically a Harvard social scientist, but a better description might be poet laureate of civil society.”
The book provides a compelling description of what poverty in America looks like, and marshals the scientific evidence to draw out in detail the impact of poverty on the educational plans and dreams of the young.
Our Kids is a harsh critique of current American society, both government and civil society. In Putnam’s view, in the past, and as recently as the 1950’s when he grew up, there was a greater regard by citizens for the well being of children in their community; rich or poor, advantaged or disadvantaged, all kids in town were “our kids,” hence the title. This concern was part of a society’s fabric, and played an important role in ensuring equal opportunity and upward social mobility. The book is structured around the life stories or portraits of various people interviewed by the author, followed by an analysis of their stories in view of the science.
Putnam’s focus is on equality of opportunity, and the book’s central question is “Do youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds in fact have roughly equal chances, and has that changed in recent decades?”
He starts by setting out the facts that show a growing economic inequality, an economic chasm opening up between the poor and non-poor. Income inequality, he argues, has led to a decrease in the equality of opportunity. Increasingly, families live in either uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor neighborhoods. “So while race-based
segregation has been slowly declining, class based segregation has been increasing.” (page 38)
Another chapter focuses on families and notes that from 1965 to 1980 American family life underwent a massive transformation. The Ozzie and Harriet style union, two-parent household with a working dad and stay at home mom, shifted as divorce became epidemic. This and other factors, “have had an unmistakable effect on kids’ lives. In the upper, college educated third of American society, most kids today live with two parents, and such families nowadays typically have two incomes. In the lower, high-school-educated third, however, most kids live with at most one of their biological parents, and in fact, many live in a kaleidoscopic, multi-partner, or blended family, but rarely with more than one wage earner. Children growing up in the lower-tier families perform worse on standardized tests, earn lower grades and stay in school for fewer years. They are more likely to have behavioral problems such as aggression, and psychological problems like anxiety and depression.
The starkness of the picture that Putnam paints comes through clearly in the life stories of the people in the book. His picture is one of two Americas divided by money and social class. The lower class live in poor, crime-ridden areas, where violence is common. They live in blended and extended families with meager resources. Their parents, when present, grew up in similar circumstances. Their caregivers have little time or ability to read to them. Stress levels are high. They attend inferior schools, with teachers who are often uncaring. They have no friends or relatives outside this impoverished community. Social mobility or equality of opportunity doesn’t really exist. By contrast, the top third have not only much more money, they also have all the social advantages: parents and teachers who watch over them, and a broad circle of friends and contacts by virtue of their social class. They live in safe, vibrant communities, and have a staggering array of life opportunities. All of these social facts for both communities directly impact their educational endeavors and dreams, and Professor Putnam concludes that the single most important determinant of success are the resources (negative and positive) that students bring to school, rather than the school itself. As one book reviewer noted, it’s what is in their “backpacks” which they bring to school that makes all the difference.
At one point in his book, Professor Putnam admits that before doing the research, he did not fully understand the inability of the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. He is a person from humble roots. “I did it through dint of hard work,” he thought, “why can’t they?” An astonishing admission from someone who has worked in this field all his life, but I think it speaks to the ignorance of many of us and of our failure to absorb the societal reality which has emerged in the past several decades. Professor Putnam says he now understands.