Social scientist Robert Putnam grew up in Norman Rockwell’s America. The Port Clinton High School class of 1959 soared above their parents’ educational levels and standards of living. In the fifties, Port Clinton was one of those places where the American Dream was confirmed. Since then, things have changed. In his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Putnam, now an eminent social scientist, compares the community that begot him and his classmates to the fragmented America of 2015.
Then and Now
Port Clinton in the fifties was a land of opportunity. Frank, Port Clinton’s “rich kid,” started out doing manual labor for his father’s company and later joined the Navy. The high-school quarterback, Don, was raised in a poor family. His dad worked seventy-five-hour weeks at factories and prioritized investments—homeownership and piano lessons—over his family’s food security. Upon graduating from college, Don became a pastor and football coach.
It would be easy enough to dismiss Putnam’s recollections with a condescending smile. But Putnam is in the company of many other memorialists who confirm that mid-century America really was different. Culture was more compressed; a handful of TV stations and popular magazines depicted largely the same worldview. Hard evidence on the rate of socioeconomic mobility at the time is thin. The landmark study of mobility trends only goes back as far as people born in 1971, when Putnam was 30.
Port Clinton still exists, but it’s a Pottersville now. Its affluent families have little connection to the town. Most factory jobs are gone. Areas that were once middle class are now lower class. In Our Kids, we are introduced to David, a teenage father interviewed by Putnam and his research partner Jennifer Silva. By the ripe age of 18, David had worked at a diner and in a factory; he had landscaped and flipped burgers. But none of these jobs stuck. David’s list of anti-social accomplishments is even longer: juvenile crime, alcohol, drugs, broken probation, jail time, suffering parental neglect, and running with a bad crowd.
Putnam’s claim is that David is emblematic of today’s lower class—a lower class much larger and worse off than that of the 1950s. To help this growing disadvantaged class, Putnam prescribes various progressive government policies.
Top and Bottom
Putnam’s diagnosis echoes Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart, which dragged the ugly divergence in American lifestyles into the spotlight. Today’s college-educated people, Murray showed, still lead 1950s-style lives. They marry before having children, work full time, divorce at low rates, and attend church regularly. The less educated, however, have changed. They used to live very similar lives to the affluent and educated, just with less money. Now their families are in flux, they are less religious, and the men are less likely to work.
Putnam, often using the same sources, confirms and develops Murray’s account by emphasizing the divergence in childrearing trends. The rich are much more intentional in rearing their kids and deploy sophisticated approaches to the “rug-rat race.” But poor Americans struggle to translate good intentions for their children into educational achievement. More fundamentally, they lack the basic frame of family life and good behavior that Putnam recalls among the poor families of 1959.
In Our Kids, Putnam describes the divergence in each key area of child development: families, parenting style, schools, and community life. In each case, he tells illustrative stories of a rich and a poor family. Behind each pair of families is a forest of statistics and studies selected to support their stories. But Putnam does not introduce any new data work of his own, so his most ambitious claim—that opportunity in America has changed for the worse since the fifties—lacks rigorous evidence.
The stories are easily the most compelling part of the book. Putnam brings the families to life and is forthright, though not judgmental, about their advantages and follies. The reader finds himself rooting for the poor kids—won’t they catch a break? Maybe they won’t get rich, but will they at least find love, personal fulfillment, or a steady job?
Spoiler alert: Some do, but most don’t.
The poor kids face substantial obstacles, starting with their parents. David’s mother was “never there” and his father wound up in prison. Kayla’s birth was “kind of planned” and she entered a “confusing web” of step-siblings. Elijah’s parents were alternately absent or “punitive.” Lola and Sofia’s parents were gang members. Lisa and Amy’s fathers were substance abusers and their mother suffered from multiple sclerosis and depression. Not one of the families is remotely similar to that of Don or the other PCHS ’59 graduates whom Putnam interviewed.
Half the poor and poorly-raised millennials in Our Kids further sank their own prospects with teenage drug use and childbearing. Elijah “got high and drunk every night,” committed arson, and still, in Putnam’s estimation, “seems addicted to the adrenaline rush of violence.” It’s a testament to Putnam’s writing that Elijah comes across as likable and human.
Of Putnam’s interviewees, the one with the best chance to escape poverty is probably Sofia, a Latina in Orange County. Raised by her grandparents and older sister Lola, Sofia displayed academic aptitude early. But her American dream was foiled by “apathetic and unhelpful” public school teachers. Sofia fell too far behind the “smart kids” to be deemed worthy of serious instruction. When Putnam interviewed her, she was in community college, but remained pitifully ill-informed about the contours of the US educational system.
What about the Middle?
Our Kids, unfortunately, says very little about the middle class. The affluent families are upper-middle class at least: a few managers, a wealthy contractor, an architect, and an independent consultant. Putnam undersells the one middle-class family we meet as “working class.” The mom, Stephanie, is a retail store manager working full time, and her husband drives a forklift. Those two incomes under one roof places a household above the US median. Stephanie and her husband live in the Atlanta exurbs. Stephanie’s kids (all from her first marriage) are a mixed bag—a “golden boy,” a recent community college grad, and two “challenge children.”
Although Putnam does not emphasize the fact, Stephanie’s family is the face of today’s middle class. There are more American families like Stephanie’s than like all the other families in Our Kids combined. Perhaps the next book in this field will complement Putnam’s and Murray’s accounts, both of which focus on the top and bottom of the distribution, by examining social trends in the middle class.
Are More Government Programs the Solution?
The menu of policy options suggested in Putnam’s final chapter is stunningly disconnected from the problems he describes. Most of Putnam’s proposals recommend that the government put more money into the hands of poor people and public school teachers. Maybe that is good policy, but the stories of Our Kids, at least, comprise a persuasive argument that it is not.
In Port Clinton, 1959, children in rich and poor families were raised the same way, went to school together, and had the same range of outcomes. Government is visible in Putnam’s Port Clinton only as a school system, the military, and presumably the inspectors who shut down insalubrious company housing in which one family lived.
The nature of poverty has changed. Although Don’s father held two full-time factory jobs in the 1950s, his family often did not have enough to eat. But fifty years later, the teenaged David has enough spending money to purchase drugs and alcohol. Don had moved away by the time his family acquired a TV, while David plays video games frequently. David has gotten points on his license for speeding; Don’s family didn’t own a car. David’s failure to thrive as Don did cannot be attributed to a lack of money.
In 1959, poverty was material deprivation. For millennials, material deprivation is rare. Elijah, the grocery bagger with a hunger for violence, wears Jordans. Kayla has a TV in her bedroom. Amy and Lisa support teenage drug habits despite being on welfare. If material deprivation always closed off opportunities, the poor kids of the Class of ’59 would have had much worse outcomes than the poorly raised but adequately fed children of the millennium.
Not only were the poor millennial kids better off materially, they also encountered government representatives and programs designed specifically to help them. Kayla got attention from a school social worker, was put into a special school program, and later received Job Corps training. A librarian “helped her arrange financial aid” to a community college. She and her boyfriend live off her father’s disability benefits. David got into “a ‘career-based intervention class.’” Lisa and Amy’s family income derives from “various public welfare programs.” Amy got into a magnet school and, after bad decisions with drugs and boys, a high school for young mothers. Elijah was born into the safest and most structured environment a government can provide—an Army base in Germany—but grew up beset by crime and chaos. If twenty-first century America has failed its children, it is not for lack of government programs.
In Our Kids, the only subjects who would clearly have been aided by better academic instruction were Lola and Sofia. They were raised well and connected in their community by volunteering at an AIDS clinic. What was missing was attentive, focused teaching. But was such teaching even possible in a school where students routinely “took Ecstasy and drank” in class? Would paying teachers more or giving students’ families more money have helped? Lola and Sofia attended their terrible high school only because the other choices were too distant, yet Putnam is dismissive of school choice when he makes recommendations for education.
For the rest of the kids, better-paid teachers and free school sports simply can’t counteract the negative impact of disintegrating families.
Parenting Is A Necessity
Bizarrely, personal actions and choices that might mend the social fabric do not interest Putnam. He recommends as though individual behavior were fixed, despite his own rich portraits of lives full of momentous decisions. When he dutifully checks off the possibility of expanded local mentorship projects as a response to social disintegration, he does so in the passive voice. By contrast, the preceding paragraph contains commands: “Close this book, visit your school superintendent . . . Insist that pay-to-play [school sports] be ended.” For Putnam, money is what matters.
But, if money is not the solution, then what is? Some pessimists, such as Isabel Sawhill, pin their hopes on birth control. But Sawhill’s movement to promote teenage use of long-acting reversible contraception, and movements like it, must contend with the fact that the last major increase in contraception availability led to an historic rise in out-of-wedlock births.
As a reader, I expected that Putnam would exhort me to tutor, attend a diverse church, babysit for a single mom, move to a poorer neighborhood—to take action. After all, his fond memories of Port Clinton emphasize its warm social cohesion. Perhaps Putnam assumed the exhortation to personal action was obvious, and omitted it. If so, he missed an opportunity to turn theoretical discussions of inequality into a non-political social movement toward renewed community.
Putnam’s proposals for government transfers, better-paid teachers, and free sports teams may represent helpful stepping stones to children who are socially secure and were raised in a stable, disciplined home, as his poor classmates were. But the children of Our Kids demonstrate painfully that outside influences are too little, too late for those from broken homes.
In 1959, eight out of eight poor parents in Our Kids had been present throughout their children’s lives.* In 2015, that was true of two out of twelve. Putnam does not have a plan that will help the kids whose parents have fled.
*Correction: Due to an editorial error now corrected, this sentence as first published inaccurately stated the observations in Putnam’s book.