The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)

Separate and Unequal

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

Robert Putnam

New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 1)

Robert Putnam’s enduring legacy in American social science will almost certainly be his concern for community. His important earlier work on social capital and civic engagement redirected research agendas across several disciplines, even while attracting the attention of politicians, city planners, and international development organizations. The work that followed his influential Bowling Alone (2000) provided significant addenda to that book’s animating concern with civic practices and social solidarity. In 2007, in an important public lecture, the Harvard University political scientist explored the complex—and in some cases inverse—relationship between ethnic diversity and intergroup levels of trust. In 2010, he and coauthor David Campbell released American Grace, a landmark work that expanded knowledge of how religious associations contribute to civil society and democratic citizenship. Putnam has unquestionably become America’s leading public intellectual on what Bowling Alone’s subtitle names the “collapse and revival of American community.”

How Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis fits into the Putnam corpus is revealed in the first word of the book’s title. This is about the collective well-being of our next generation. Putnam’s concern for the collective is grounded in the personal: To write this book, he set out to track down all 150 people who had graduated with him from his Port Clinton, Ohio, high school in 1959. Investigating this group’s career trajectories and life opportunities provides the starting point for Putnam’s empirical project, which is supplemented by ethnographic observations of families from all over the United States. Although a political scientist by training, Putnam borrows many pages from cultural sociology to provide a close look at the experiences and personal narratives of families trying to live out the American dream in postindustrial America. These in-depth personal accounts of growing up and raising children across the social strata are recounted to illuminate the larger social and economic factors affecting our shared well-being.

Putnam clearly intends his book to challenge those Americans who are committed to the ideal that “everyone in America should have equal opportunity to get ahead”—a group that, surveys suggest, includes about 95 percent of us. Each chapter moves from interview accounts to a deluge of data to lay out the case that we are falling well short of our idealism. These data lead ineluctably to confirmation of Putnam’s thesis about our current “crisis”: that growing class segregation and polarization across multiple institutions (neighborhoods, schools, marriages, workplaces, civic associations) mean that “rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds,” while the steppingstones between those worlds seem to be eroding.

With no shortage of careful qualifications, Our Kids resembles Bowling Alone in historicizing the contemporary social landscape by tracing its origins to a twentieth-century “golden age.” The result is a plethora of “scissor charts” revealing statistically significant divergences—usually beginning in the 1970s—between upper-class (typically, college-educated) and lower-class (typically, non−college-educated) Americans.

Readers familiar with the established research of social scientists like Annette Lareau, Sara McLanahan, Robert Sampson, and James Heckman will find that Our Kids follows a well-worn path to some familiar-sounding conclusions. America’s class divides are complex and likely getting more so. They can be traced to some combination of diverging patterns in family structure, parenting, early childhood development, neighborhood effects, and educational resources. These factors manifest themselves both culturally and structurally. Educational institutions themselves, while clearly structured in ways that make these divergences more visible, are just as much products of the divides as they are contributors to them. Studies of early childhood development reveal that children find themselves on particular class-based trajectories at disturbingly young ages in terms of cognitive, emotional, and social skills mastered (or not mastered) before the first day of kindergarten. Interventions seem to be most effective at early life stages.

Our Kids makes its most original contributions in the domain where Putnam has established his reputation: its treatment of the civic and communal relationships that shape the social fabric across America’s various social divisions. Putnam not only addresses critics of his “collapse of community” thesis from Bowling Alone but also fleshes out the previously underdeveloped moral and political ends toward which “social capital” might be applied. These goals go beyond those of his earlier communitarian-oriented agenda of promoting civil society “associationism” and “celebratory sociality” as defenses against alleged threats of materialistic individualism, “lifestyle enclaves,” and rising television consumption. Instead, in the American society presented in Our Kids, social capital becomes less about membership numbers than about life-shaping relationships that can save people pulled downward by the rip tides of class polarization. This updated account of social capital recasts it as more of a tangible asset or resource, not unlike financial or human capital. And Putnam presents evidence that this asset—in settings where it is particularly scarce—has increased in value in relation to intergenerational mobility. A working-class high school quarterback gets to college because a football coach guides him through the application process. A high-achieving but alienated minority high school student finds educational support in an older white woman whose house she cleaned every week. A single mother with multiple sclerosis receives medical and emotional support from an inner-city youth pastor.

But these “help up the ladder” social ties are the exceptions to what Our Kids finds in poorer areas, where these connections are not only rarer overall but also less frequently helpful. Kids from such environments suffer a significant “mentoring gap,” finding few formal and informal advisers who can guide them through unfamiliar or potentially perilous situations that bear directly on life outcomes. While lending support to the “It takes a village” mantra of earlier communitarian and progressive-left thought, Our Kids foregrounds the disadvantaged status of those with few ties to college graduates, trauma counselors, health specialists, or people in high-prestige occupations. Clearly, it doesn’t just take a village; it takes a certain kind of village.

While Bowling Alone and American Grace left an enduring mark on multiple disciplines, the heavy reliance of Our Kids on previously published research constrains its agenda-setting potential. This book joins a long line of earlier works charting the “big sort” or “coming apart” or “great divergence” of American society along class lines, and a cursory Google search reveals that we are already in the midst of more than one “national conversation” on inequality and social mobility. But there are two very good reasons to believe that Our Kids stands to move the conversation forward. The first is, appropriately enough, Putnam’s own considerable social capital. The book’s release prompted a star-studded panel discussion at Georgetown University featuring distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and President Barack Obama. Republican representative and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has openly acknowledged Putnam’s influence on his social policies. The director of the National Economic Council, which advises the president on national and global economic policy, once called Putnam “Obama’s [Thomas] Piketty.” Putnam fills this public intellectual role well, making social science findings engaging and accessible.

The other way Our Kids stands to move the conversation forward is through the disciplinary “division of labor” this work embodies. It was research by Harvard economists—led by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren—that in 2013 generated new attention to social mobility and opportunity. Their project, “The Equality of Opportunity Project,” drew on data from thirty million tax filings to map out the various factors associated with a particular metropolitan area’s rate of “intergenerational mobility”—a child’s chances of moving up the income ladder relative to his or her parents’ income. The use of community-wide characteristics and their respective correlation with particular outcomes left many of their conclusions open to interpretation. Place matters, unquestionably, but it is difficult to untangle the various correlates of mobility: tax expenditure on schools, concentrated poverty, family structure, and racial segregation all seem to play a role. Something is going right in Salt Lake City. Something is going wrong in Atlanta. Comparing coefficients of aggregate, community-wide measures takes us only so far.

Enter Putnam. In Our Kids, he adeptly incorporates the mobility studies of his Harvard colleagues but then goes deeper: What have the last several decades of social science told us about the processes, strategies, and resources that make mobility possible or impossible? What do theories of intersectionality tell us about interacting factors of race, class, gender, education, and human capital? What sorts of institutions seem capable of disrupting class-structured patterns of life trajectories? Certainly, at times Putnam could afford to incorporate more theoretical thinking to compliment his charts and stats, but Our Kids takes steps toward sketching out the most likely causal mechanisms lurking deep within those thirty million tax filings. An “extracurricular gap” keeps poorer kids from the skills, social ties, and stability accessible to well-off kids. A “mentoring gap” leaves poorer kids with no one to advise them on college and careers. An “airbags gap” structures the consequences of drug use and other poor decisions differently for poor kids than for rich kids. Even more fundamentally, a “friendship gap” reveals that as lower-income parents traverse modern life, they are far more socially isolated and alone than higher-income parents. Such gaps are the puzzle pieces that social scientists can assemble to evaluate how social class—more than race or ethnic origins—has come to shape and constrain life opportunities in American society.

Our Kids puts a moral test to its readers: What level of opportunity does our society owe to those represented in Putnam’s interviews? Are we caught in a moral contradiction in which so many of us who profess a belief in the American dream are complicit in a social arrangement that thwarts its realization? How does a country accustomed to navigating crises of GDP, housing, health, and the Middle East now come to navigate a crisis so central to our national identity? And what sorts of interventions are warranted should we see mobility worsen as future cohorts reach adulthood in postindustrial America? The best hope for discerning a path forward demands the insights of not only social scientists but all scholars attuned to the historical and moral dimensions of the American dream and its viability for Americans at all levels of society.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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