Review: Our Kids

Following a polarizing election that has left many in my community surprised and confused, Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids” provides a refreshing collection of research and engaging anecdotes told with generosity of spirit. Perhaps more than any other modern voice, Putnam excels at describing American society in a bi-partisan way. He and his previous best-seller, “Bowling Alone”, has been influential in multiple administrations. His emphasis on improving society appeals to traditionalist conservatives who emphasize historic institutions and to progressives who value his call for a more proactive government.

Increasing economic inequality and decreasing upward mobility will hurt our children

While his previous work provided a critique of declining civic life, “Our Kids” fits nicely with the narrative of “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray and “Hillbilly Elegy” that describe the dynamics and effects of widening income disparity and decreasing economic mobility. Where Putnam differs is his emphasis on a topic unprecedented in its importance and urgency to a parent: what is happening to the dreams of our children?

To answer this question, he focuses on state of upward mobility and its consequences on the future of our children through an emphasis on recent subtle, but profound changes to three parts of society: family life, neighborhoods and schools. In all his analysis, he defines rich and poor simply: “rich” parents finished college; “poor” parents have high school degrees or less. In the end, he describes a radical reordering of social capital towards those with the resources, networks and know-how to use it. He labels this as an “an incipient class apartheid”. His narrative is a constant meta-analysis of academic studies along with contrasting portraits of high- and low-­income families.

While “The Second Machine Age” is a much better book to understand how we got here, Putnam makes a compelling and personal appeal to understand just how bleak life is and is becoming for those without the resources to buffer their children from life’s dangers. While the rich children profiled faced plenty of challenges (divorce, substance and physical abuse, academic challenges), their parents were able to change their environment to help, often with dramatically different circumstances than the poor children presented. When life became difficult, their networks responded and their resources opened doors closed to the poor.


With the benefit of specific names and locations, he describes the differing ways that rich and poor experience school sports, obesity, maternal employment, single parenthood, financial stress, college graduation, church attendance, friendship networks, college graduation and family dinners.

Every story sets the stage for a set of new statistics. An example: affluent kids with low high-school test scores are as likely to get a college degree (30%) as high-scoring kids from poor families (29%). Education is supposed to help level the playing field, but it is increasingly achieving the opposite.

Another example is that rich kids get almost 50 percent more nurturing time from their parents, when there used to be no class difference. In fact, many factors are diverging that used to be independent of class (e.g. church attendance rates and political engagement). Most troubling to me is that increasingly only the rich retain hope and pass it on to their children. While Horatio Alger marked the aspirations of a generation of upwardly mobile children at the beginning of the 20th century, Putnam makes the case that apathy and pessimism reign at the bottom of the social order at the end.

Some of the stories were heart-wrenching to a degree that distracts from the larger story. One subject, “Elijah”, was beaten by his father after the son was jailed for arson, thrown out of the house by his mother because of drinking and drugs, and unable to escape the lure of the streets. Such stories arise my passion and compassion. They take up an elevated place in my mind, and leave me hungry for more information and for statistics to know how unique their stories are.

Current social dynamics are making it worse

Putnam makes it clear that things aren’t getting better. Everyone knows rich kids have advantages, but he shows that their advantages are large and growing with no bounds to stop the trend. He shows the growing gap through numerous “scissor charts”. One way to look at the diverging trends is through the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale:

  1. Household adult humiliated or threatened you physically
  2. Household adult hit, slapped, or injured you
  3. Adult sexually abused you
  4. Felt no one in family loved or supported you
  5. Parents separated/divorced
  6. You lacked food or clothes or your parents were too drunk or high to care for you
  7. Mother/stepmother was physically abused
  8. Lived with an alcoholic or drug user
  9. Household member depressed or suicidal
  10. Household member imprisoned

Each of these factors are becoming more frequent in poor families and he has both charts to convince the left side of our brain and stories to convince the right.

One chart that he highly emphasizes is the trend in family dinners. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s family dinners became rarer in all social echelons, but since then that trend leveled off for households led by college-educated parents, and only continued downward for high school–only educated families.

Causes

In the end, he argues that inadequate empathy and weakened civic institutions are the primary cause. While “Bowling Alone” made a solid case for the decline of civic institutions, he makes a strong argument for growing inadequate understanding reenforced by self selectivity and the dynamics of technology and productivity.

Current dynamics provide big advantages to children at the top and restrict the capability of those without resources to work their way up the social ladder. This has cascading effects and is a particularly difficult problem with long time constants. Rich parents have a growing edge in access to good day care, then better schools with a suite of extracurricular activities and the spending gap has tripled on activities. Malcolm Gladwell covered these dynamics well in Outliers.

Potential Improvements

While his reliance on anecdotes risks informing our emotions more than our minds, the biggest weakness in his book was the absence of a discussion of the political forces that shape the world he so aptly described. The stories of the poor are heartbreaking. It is clear that Putnam was moved by the people he met and the stories are moving, but how real do the stats hold up? It is nice that he goes beyond raw data and listens to those who are otherwise voiceless in our society. By blending portraits of individual people with aggregate data, he gives us a remarkably clear picture of inequality in the United States. But is this clear picture an accurate picture? That said, I’m ready to avoid politics for a bit and the dialogue was definitely enhanced from his refusal to fall into the neat bins of our current culture wars.

He never tackles the finances of the individuals involved. His reluctance to wade in politics prevents him from politically inconvenient observations such that that rich kids still grow up with two parents, and poor kids don’t. For me, he also invites cognitive dissonance between the narrative of victimhood/entitlement and the gumption (maybe even intentional obliviousness) that characterized others who have risen above their class.

Most maddeningly, he omits a discussion of the political or economic forces driving the changes he laments. In particular, I don’t think any story about inequality is possible without describing the intersection of economics, productivity, globalization and technology.

Potential Solutions

I resonate with his emphasis on importance of family dinners. His policy suggestions include expanded tax credits for the poor, greater access to quality day care and more money for community colleges. He also highlights increased investment in early education, expanded child care options and formal mentoring programs.

While logical, these sound a bit like the status quo and might be missing an emphasis on the moral foundations which provided the glue for the institutions whose importance he highlights.

In all he provides a vivid description of the diverging life chances of children in rich and poor families. I’m hoping that the main impact of this book will be the many conversations it creates and the poignancy of its character-based narratives will force me to think of ways I can help counter the trends described.

References

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