Keating: ‘The American Dream in Crisis’

October 21, 2015

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D. Putnam. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015 (386 pages).

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

If you suspect that the quality of American life for least-advantaged youths has become pernicious, and you are among those lamenting the disappearance of a national civic culture, “Our Kids” offers confirmation but little solace.

Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, wrote the widely acclaimed best-seller “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000). In Our Kids, he uses case studies to show that the condition of poor children in the U.S. is significantly below that of affluent children and incrementally worsening.

Putnam’s “scissor graphs” plotting indicators of social well-being, wealth, income and educational attainment reveal a widening gap over recent decades between children raised by parents who completed or failed to complete high school as compared with children whose parents are college graduates.

The author effectively makes the case for a cultural crisis in the U.S. of an underclass characterized by family disruption, economic distress, exposure to crime, drug use, incarceration, child abandonment and neglect, substandard academic progress and failure to secure steady employment. The underlying issue raised by Putnam is whether or not American youth now have the worst of both worlds — negligible or no increase in overall living standards and decreasing probabilities of social mobility for disadvantaged youths. He observes that, compared with Europeans, Americans remain more skeptical about redistributive policies yet continue to value the American dream of social mobility and equal opportunity for all (33).

The breadth and depth of Putnam’s “Notes” ensures the value of the book for anyone working in the social sciences. Its website provides “causal path analysis” measuring the increased importance of parental educational levels now as compared with the 1950s when a student’s class rank was more predictive of college completion. The book contains a few errors. For example, Putnam states that the middle-income quintile after-tax income (adjusted for inflation) increased by $8,700 a year between 1979 and 2005. This would work out to approximately $126,000 from a base of zero in 1979 (35).

The chapters “The American Dream,” “Families,” “Parenting,” “Schooling” and “Community” contain extended narratives that describe two or more families differentiated by Putnam’s indicator of class, namely parental educational level. Putnam credits the skill of Jen Silva, who spent two years interviewing young adults and their parents in Duluth, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Birmingham, Austin, Bend (Oregon), Orange County (California) and Waltham and Weston, Massachusetts, about what it is like to grow up today. (Micro-aggression warning: Some of these stories are disturbing.)

Putnam begins with success stories of low-income students from his own high school graduating class of 1959 in Port Clinton, Ohio. Using this base, the author focuses on the subject of Our Kids, a widening class-based American opportunity gap. The two Black students in Putnam’s 1959 graduating class lived in poorer sections of town with parents who had no formal education beyond elementary school in the Jim Crow South. However, both students benefited from tightly knit, hardworking, religiously observant, two-parent families. The two excelled in high school academically and in extra-curricular activities. Each attended good nearby colleges on partial scholarships, obtained graduate degrees, entered the field of public education, and recently retired from successful careers (13). This is selective and anecdotal, but the experience of Putnam parallels stories shared at this reviewer’s class of 1959 reunions from a large working-class high school in West Philadelphia.

What happened? The author hypothesizes that youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds do not have equal life chances. Putnam deals to some extent with cultural changes, but attributes the collapse of working-class family life and community as due primarily to stagnating wages, the loss of manufacturing jobs, increasingly class-segregated neighborhoods, lack of political consensus, and widening wealth and income diversity. Beyond the issue of economic inequality, Putnam sees a turning point in the 1960s when U.S. society reverted to the intense individualism of the early 20th century. Subsequently, we experienced decreased investment in social capital and an unwillingness to invest in other people’s children (261).

Arguably, the heart of Our Kids is the chapter titled “Community.” In it, Putnam suggests that the prognosis for American children is not good because rich and poor towns across America increasingly shirk collective responsibility for “our kids.” He shows a pattern in which affluent families, unlike low-income families, have been able to replace previously provided collective provision of social capital with private provision; they also have the means to compensate on behalf of their children for any early indiscretions. (205).

Because poor, lower-class Americans, particularly if they are nonwhite, tend to be socially isolated, a reduced number of social connections contribute to the youth-opportunity gap (207). Subsequently, more than twice as many high school-educated youths are completely detached from virtually all forms of civic life compared with college-educated youth (235). Poor neighborhoods, a loss in social trust, fewer non-family mentors and decreased participation in community and church organizations work to widen the social-opportunity gap between the lives of poor youths less exposed to the positive influences available to affluent youth (204). The stepping stones to upward mobility — middle-class classmates, cousins, neighbors, etc. — are increasingly unavailable to offer guidance to poor Americans being raised in increasingly separate and unequal worlds.

In the chapter “Parenting,” Putnam characterizes well-educated parents as nurturing  autonomous, independent, self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices. On the other hand, less-educated parents tend to focus on discipline, obedience and conformity to rules (119). The author minimizes the danger of excessive parenting on a young person’s resilience, and seems in general to support the parenting practices outlined in the narratives of higher-income families.

Putnam does points out, however, that ideal parenting alone cannot compensate for the ill effects of poverty on children (134). The author believes that the disadvantages of poverty and less-educated parenting run deep and are firmly established before children get to school; this appears to contradict his examples of upward mobility in America mid-20th century. Putnam reasons that poorer children in the past grew up with supportive institutions that boosted a significant number of them up the ladder (229).

Putnam writes at length about user fees (estimated at $400 per activity per year) charged high school students who participate in extra-curricular activities, but does not offer explanation why fees were initiated, such as increased liability. Prior to instituting pay-to-play fees for extracurricular activities, roughly half of all children were playing sports. When fees were introduced, one in every three sports-playing students from low-income homes dropped out. Is it just due to fees?

In any case, imagine how discouraging it must be at present to aspire to a place on any varsity high school team or band without the private coaching or prepping in a travel league available to so many of your classmates.

How, then, do low-income children gain access to non-academic soft skills, character formation and leadership training? It is probably the case that even a year in scouting or 4-H, though modest means in increasing a child’s capabilities, does not fit into the budget of low-income families. Thus children in low-income households remain more likely to participate in school-based activities — in spite of user fees — than organized non-school programs. They are also more likely than affluent children to hold school-year employment, which is not a problem unless these are virtually full-time jobs (181).

Putnam, in his schooling chapter, cites studies indicating that the progressive high school movement of the first half of the 20th century was a seminal force advancing economic growth and socioeconomic equality (160). At present, because a disproportionate number of General Education Development credentials are issued to children from poorer backgrounds, any closing gap between rich and poor previously reported for high school graduation is mostly an illusion (184). The schools that low-income and affluent children attend are different in terms of experienced teachers, classes offered and extra-curricular activities. Putnam, nonetheless, emphasizes that most of the challenges facing poor children are caused neither by schools nor differential public funding between schools (231).

It is sobering to note that at the start of the 21st century, a family’s socioeconomic status had become even more important than test scores in predicting which eighth graders would graduate from college (189). Probabilities of attaining a college degree based on a student’s eighth-grade test scores based on the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 are given in the following table for those in the bottom and top 25 percent categories by socio-economic status:

Probability of Graduating from College (Our Kids, Figure 4.7)
Source: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988

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What solutions does Putnam offer to reverse the malaise that affects the well-being of low-income and less-educated American society? Our Kids warns that it will take decades for the full impact of pernicious childhood influences now under way in both nonwhite and white communities to manifest themselves in adult lives (228). Putnam adopts the term “opportunity youth” to refer to those aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor at work, and he indicates that writing off this fraction of Americans is an awfully expensive course of inaction (233).

Putnam primarily recommends pre-distribution of public resources by intervening early in the lives of poor children; it is commendable that the author advocates a shotgun approach in pursuit of a strategy based on trial and error, learning from practical experience of what works where (243). He does not emphasize parental choice, for example, through issuing vouchers for needed or preferred child-development services. To achieve equality of opportunity, Putnam argues that the value of parental autonomy should not trump a child’s right to basic education (242). Either the author believes that the present situation of poor children in general is so bad that extreme measures must be taken to somewhat extract children from their environment or he believes that ensuring equality of opportunity justifies undermining the parent-child relationship.

Putnam states that well-meaning policy experiments to increase the rate of stable marriage have not worked, and that it is surely too late to reestablish the once strong link between sex and marriage even if desirable (244-245). He discusses potential advantages of long-acting reversible contraceptives but doubts that families headed by poor, less-educated single moms will disappear soon. He does suggest that small amounts of income transfers or, even better, a sustained economic revival for low-paid workers could reduce stress on brain development, improve academic achievement, and perhaps delay childbearing and encourage marriage (246).

Excellent social analysis translated into policy often yields disastrous unintended results. For example, Putnam advocates affordable, high-quality, center-based daycare for low-income families with “wraparound” family services working one-on-one with parents (249). One must question, “From whom is the driving political push for government funding for pre-kindergarten derived?” It is unlikely that middle-class parents and school professionals will tolerate high-quality tax-funded programs to be exclusively provided to low-income families.

The reviewer W. Bradford Wilcox argues that Putnam does not give sufficient weight to the toxic effects of a popular culture and other social transformations that erode the values and the vitality of families and churches, hitting working-class and poor communities especially hard. Nor does Mr. Putnam give sufficient consideration to the possibility that the modern welfare state has supplanted the basic functions of the family and of civil society; it has also undercut the effectiveness and affordability of our schools and colleges with a welter of regulations (“Bootstraps Aren’t Enough,” the Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2015).

We note as well that Putnam is quite selective in dealing with the extensive literature that implicates government reforms such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Section 8 Housing, etc., as contributors to the breakdown of traditional families, stable neighborhoods and social isolation. Rather, the author emphasizes the harm caused by the 1980s War on Drugs that has increased paternal incarceration for non-violent crimes (247).

Our concern is that Our Kids will advance a movement of childhood interventions based on Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman’s work on adverse childhood experiences. This would follow the failed and costly busing program inspired by sociologist James S. Coleman’s work on the importance of educational peers. Putnam agrees with Coleman that peers matter, and he indicates that the most promising approach to decreasing the educational opportunity gap is to move children, money and teachers to different schools. At the same time, however, he advocates specialized daycare centers for low-income children (250-251).

Putnam does point out that the “college for all” motto has diverted resources from secondary and post-secondary vocational education. Therefore, he advocates for career academies and apprenticeships; he cites data suggesting that career-academy students earn post-secondary degrees at the same rates as non-career-academy students (255). Consider the confidence given an 18-year-old with the assurance of an occupational skill on which to fall back if all else fails. Putnam agrees that community colleges have promise in advancing certain youth along a realistic upward path but that this promise has not been realized. Nearly two-thirds of community college students drop out before attaining an associate degree or transferring to a four-year institution (257). Finally, the author considers partnerships between government, the private sector and the local community to support poor families in poor neighborhoods, successfully improving the parents’ income and their children’s academic performance (260).

Our Kids joins Charles Murray’s Coming Apart in addressing the growing social, cultural and economic gap shaping the lives and futures of children raised in the U.S. In both books, we learn that the percentage of children who live in single-parent homes has been falling in college-educated circles since the mid-1990s even as it has been rising in homes headed by parents with a high-school diploma or less. “Finish your education, get a job, get married, have a child . . . in that order,” is being successfully communicated to at least one segment of American society. Are low expectations preventing the dissemination of the message to all American youth?

This book represents a cry of the heart for children who appear to have no path out from misery. Every child needs at least one but preferably two parents fully committed to his or her well-being and development. There are no substitutes. Putnam is correct in saying that we should assist parents in this role, particularly when war, illness or abandonment prevent a parent from meeting caregiving and financial obligations. He pleas for increased commitment to invest in other people’s children as in the past. Indeed, grandparents, siblings, teachers, youth ministers, neighbors, coaches, etc., are rising to the occasion. However, self-preservation requires third parties, lacking a consensus on shared values, to disengage when a child lacks even one fully engaged and accountable guardian.

The elephant in the room in both Putnam and Murray’s books is the potential for an elite or, for that matter, any group with institutionalized benefits to perpetuate their status other than by merit. Extreme polarization by class is inconsistent with democracy, weakening how institutions and governments function. Consider but one example from Our Kids: There is a difference between advocating for one’s children, on one hand, and using influence to get poor grades expunged, teachers transferred and preferential treatment for scholarship recommendations (25). Low-income students note advantages given classmates based, for example, on their parents’ willingness to decorate the gym for prom night, fundraising, etc. Both private and public schools cross-subsidize, but low-income students are on the inside of a process over several years, with few educational alternatives. They reap the benefits of benefactors but, at the same time, are acutely aware whenever the line between institutional preferences and merit is crossed. Eternal vigilance alone, given the bifurcation of the social fabric outlined in Our Kids, can prevent one side or the other from turning America into an oligopoly.

Maybe what is needed is a return to the old American rite of passage in which every teenager hustled for the opportunity to babysit, mow lawns, bag groceries, run errands, bus tables, caddy, etc. These experiences helped create an identity shared by all Americans, one which has been subverted, to give but one example, by segregated and subsidized “geek” and “college strategies for the disadvantaged” camps.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell, 2009.

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