“Can Robert Putnam Save the American Dream?” That’s the question the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Marc Perry recently asked in a long and reverential article about the Harvard professor’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. The Chronicle, along with most major media outlets in America, has given Putnam’s book—describing the growing class divide in the United States—a warm hug. Jason DeParle of the New York Times went so far as to refer to Putnam as “the poet laureate of civil society.”
But when conservative thinker Charles Murray wrote Coming Apart, a book on much the same subject published three years ago, no one asked whether he could save the American Dream. In fact, the Chronicle concluded its article on Murray’s book by cautioning against “authors…who cash in by producing best-selling polemics, in which research is used to buttress foregone conclusions.”
Putnam and Murray have not written the same book. But they both describe the difference in family structure between rich and poor; they both write about the contrast in religious attendance among classes and the resulting loss of “social capital”; they both note the large amounts of time and money that rich parents can devote to their kids when compared with the poor; and they both reveal the striking educational disparities between the two groups. Given all this, one might wonder why Putnam’s retracing of this terrain is, as Boston College’s Alan Wolfe puts it in the Washington Post, “an eye-opener.”
Putnam has said that America’s growing class divide came to his attention more than a decade ago, when a student pointed out that reports of higher rates of volunteering among teens did not hold true for those of lower socioeconomic status. The high volunteering figures among better-off teens most likely indicated résumé padding for college admissions, not some blossoming of civic life across the country. The disinterest in civic life among the working class simply reflected reality at that end of the socioeconomic continuum. When your family is falling apart and you cannot hold on to a job and you have no network of religious community for support, interest in politics generally takes a back seat. The resulting apathy is striking to those whose contact with young people is restricted to elite college students.
Here, for example, is an interview from Our Kids with a young woman from Bend, Oregon, named Kayla. She grew up in a broken home and a “confusing web of five step-siblings” where there was little regular income and scant attention to children.
Q: Are you involved in political stuff or community stuff?
A: Not really.
Q: Are you excited about the election coming up? Do you think you’ll vote?
A: Nah. I don’t care.
Q: Do you have a party that you like?
A: They all kinda suck.
Depressing as this is, it is not news. In 2011, Christian Smith published the third portion of results from his massive National Study of Youth and Religion in his book Lost in Transition. For Smith, a professor at Notre Dame, the evidence has been clear for some time. He has documented the severe political and civic apathy of young adults, particularly among lower-income kids from broken homes who (relatedly) were not involved in a religious community. Consider one of his interviews:
Interviewer: How do you feel about politics in general? Are you a very political person?
I: Do you pay attention to politics and world and national events?
I: No? What would you say your own political position is?
R: I don’t have one.
I: You don’t have one? So you wouldn’t consider yourself to be a Republican or Democrat, conservative, liberal?
I: Are there any social, political issues you especially care about?
So Putnam doesn’t offer much in the way of new insights. Instead, his book is a compelling summary of what researchers already know. It helpfully collects his much-praised “scissor graphs”—imagine two blades of an open scissor, pointing in two different directions—demonstrating the growing gap among classes when it comes to education, income, religious attendance, and marriage rates. And Putnam’s data-driven approach makes for a more temperate and less ideological work than those usually produced by academics. For example, while he notes that there is a growing gap in college-graduation rates, he is quick to add that this is hardly the cause of inequality in America. “The burdens on poor kids have been gathering weight since they were very young,” he writes. “Rising tuition costs and student debt are the final straw, not the main load.” In other words, neither class-based affirmative action by colleges nor greater tuition subsidies are going to bridge this divide.
Putnam is willing to tread on more dangerous ground as well—at least in Ivy League circles—by downplaying the role of skin color as a barrier to upward mobility. In comparing black upper-income families with black lower-income ones (and whites with whites, in the same fashion), he shows that racism is not the major factor leading to worse outcomes for African-American children. The data are very robust on this point. In 2012, for example, the poverty rate among blacks was more than 28 percent, but for married black couples it was 8.4 percent.
Such candor has led Wolfe and others to mitigate their praise with accusations that Putnam both underestimates the role of race in determining outcomes and relies too much on “anecdotes.” Wolfe argues: “If it is true that, as Putnam writes, ‘early life experiences get under your skin in a most powerful way,’ it is also nonetheless true that the color of your skin correlates with what happens early in your life.” This is correct—but only insofar as black out-of-wedlock birth rates are much higher than white ones.
Conservatives have been writing about the overwhelming importance of marriage for decades. Putnam is more or less catching up on what readers of City Journal and the Public Interest already know. Fifty years after the Moynihan Report on the breakdown of the black family, there seems to be an emerging strain on the center-left acknowledging that growing up in a two-parent home really is preferable.
Liberal thinkers, however, can never fully discard the malevolent specter of structural inequality. And Putnam is no exception. He argues that the disintegration of the American working class family is not the result of loosening morals alone, but also the product of economic forces. His evidence for this includes his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. Putnam writes: “Economic hardship is an important precursor for the breakdown of the working-class family: Divorce rates and nonmarital birth rates both skyrocketed in Port Clinton during the decade following the collapse of the local economy. And it was primarily the factory closings of the 1980s, not the cultural turmoil of the 1960s that triggered the collapse.”
But this gets things backward. The American economy has ebbed and flowed throughout time. But divorce rates and nonmarital births had never previously “skyrocketed” in the wake of downturns. During the Great Depression, some single men became drifters and some single women became spinster aunts, but the moral foundations of the nuclear family remained intact throughout the 1930s and beyond. The breakdown Putnam laments required the “precursor” of moral decay that was historically unique to the 1960s.
Putnam also muddles cause and effect when discussing educational disparities. He cites Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, who found that “the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30–40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than in children born twenty-five years ago.” One reason for this, Putnam says, is that “residential segregation” has led to ever poorer schooling in low-income areas. But, in truth, neighborhoods with poor schools become more segregated over time because residents leave for neighborhoods that have better schools. It is hard to think of a more salient factor in a family’s decision about where to live than the schools in a particular district. Young families who want to move to “diverse” urban areas are amenable to packing themselves into small quarters in neighborhoods with relatively high crime rates, as long as they can find decent schools for their children.
Finding good schools in those neighborhoods, however, is nearly impossible—and the blame rests with teachers’ unions. The worst public-school teachers are placed in the poorest neighborhoods and given job security for life. The young people interviewed in Our Kids offer eyewitness accounts of what passes for education in these schools. There’s Santa Ana High School—ringed by a chain-link fence and graffiti-
covered Keep Out signs—where students regularly carry guns, drink, do drugs in class, and witness gang fights. Santa Ana teachers, according to Sofia, a recent graduate interviewed by Putnam, have even announced that they got paid “just to babysit.” Students like Sofia, who expressed interest in academics, were regularly insulted and discouraged. Her sister, Lola, was even prevented from joining a reading club—by a teacher.
While Putnam insists that K–12 education is not to blame for the inequality of opportunity we see today, he admits that the status quo is also not doing much to help. He rightly suggests that we should be sending the best teachers to the worst schools and paying them accordingly. But Putnam fails to acknowledge that unions and the mostly Democratic politicians representing them are the ones standing in the way of such a fix.
The question of whether a school system can make up for the deficits students suffer from at home is still an open one. But Putnam is too casually dismissive of the potential for education reform. He asserts that charter schools have not performed better than traditional public schools on the whole, even as he acknowledges that the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and others like it have been shown to “produce good results for kids.” Meanwhile, he praises some early-intervention programs whose results have not been replicated on a large scale, while ignoring the incredible multiplication of high-performing charters. KIPP, for example, is currently educating almost 60,000 children in 20 states.
Putnam claims that “school choice has had at most a slight impact on the class gap.” This is confusing. By school choice, does he mean choice within a particular town or district or does he mean within a state? Surely he can’t mean the kind of choice that includes vouchers to private schools, or can he? Putnam doesn’t say. But since he acknowledges that “Catholic schools produced higher levels of achievement than public schools, especially for kids from poor backgrounds,” his skepticism toward the “choice” arguments conservatives routinely make is incoherent. He even seems to agree with the assessment by some researchers that the strong performance of Catholic schools is attributable “to the social and moral community within which parochial schools are embedded.”
This brings Putnam back to the question that conservatives have been wrestling with for decades: How do you change a culture? One way is by sending kids to a school where the values of faith, hard work, thrift, and education are instilled and modeled every day. But Putnam seems convinced that there must be a political solution to these problems. He dismisses welfare reform’s successes and disagrees with the notion that government programs have supplanted fathers, families, and churches in the lives of the working class. Doing so leaves him free to suggest more government programs, but again somewhat incoherently. For while he is not overly sanguine about raising the minimum wage, he does believe that giving small government grants of a few thousand dollars can change the lives of the poor.
Mostly what Putnam wants, though, is upper-class Americans to get involved in closing the scissor graphs. “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives,” he writes. “So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.” Putnam wants more Americans to help the lower classes build up the kind of social capital that helped his generation achieve social mobility.
What would that look like in practice? For Putnam, the engine of change is “mentoring.” Affluent children, he reasons, have a wide range of nonparental adults in their lives guiding them on personal, academic, and professional matters. He says many poor children face not only an income gap and an achievement gap, but also a “savvy gap.” He believes we can help them navigate the complexities of education, bureaucracy, and job interviews by letting them in on the secrets of the middle class.
It is true that mentors can help fill out financial-aid applications and take poor kids shopping for the right interview clothes. They can advise youths to stay off drugs and avoid the wrong crowd. But the best advice they can offer a poor American teen is hardly a secret: The key to living a life free of poverty is finishing high school and getting married before having children. This simple formula, however, remains too discomfiting for academics to adopt without qualification. A true “eye opener” of a book on the American class divide would simply embrace the solution that remains hidden in plain sight and work backward from there.