The Dream in Crisis: Poverty's Toll on Our Kids

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Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis has quickly become the context for America’s national debate on poverty – cited, praised, disputed, criticized – but often at the center of think tank debates and conference discussions. And if the forthcoming presidential election ever rises to a minimal level of sophistication on issues of inequality and social mobility, Putnam’s work will figure prominently.

This is a very good thing for our country. Putnam is playing the essential role of reintroducing America to itself, and the experience is unpleasant. A nation once divided between north and south has become bifurcated by a line of class. A single society has become two different worlds of opportunity. 

One is the world of the educated and wealthy, characterized by greater family stability, economic prospects, and community cohesion. The wealthy live in places with better schools, increasingly segregated from the working class. Parents there have a greater ability to invest time – including early childhood interaction, what Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon” time – and resources in their children. When schools aren’t living up to expectations, there are tutors. When children get into trouble, as children of every background manage to do, there are lawyers, psychologists, and addiction treatment counselors. In this world, children are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities and church-related groups where they learn important social skills. They are more likely to be situated in a circle of adults beyond their family that helps with advice, internships, and jobs.    

The world of the working class, in contrast, features economic stagnation, family instability, and community breakdown. Large economic trends, particularly globalization and the technological revolution, have pushed the blue-collar economy in many places into a permanent slump. Wages have stagnated or declined, and workforce participation has fallen. At the same time, the connection between childbearing and marriage has been broken. Chronically stressed parents – often single parents – have less time and fewer resources to invest in their children. They often practice a parenting style that is harsher and less nurturing, with serious consequences for early childhood development.  Community institutions, including public schools, are weak, providing children with fewer extracurricular opportunities. When children get into trouble, there is no support structure of addiction treatment and legal help. As Putnam puts it, the “airbags” do not deploy. 

In Our Kids, Putnam ably summarizes recent studies on all these topics – on family structure, on religious engagement, on early childhood brain development. His overarching argument is compelling: The best social scientific research demonstrates the need for children to be located in strong social and family networks, but those networks are rapidly declining in the working class. The result is a class divide that is fundamentally at odds with the American ideal. 

The power of Our Kids, however, is not found in its exposition. It is found in its storytelling. Putnam highlights case studies, gathered from hundreds of interviews in low and higher income families. This does more than personalize the book; these individual cases add up to a serious analytic point. All of the economic, social, and cultural trends that Putnam describes are experienced by children as one thing: the absence of responsible, loving, consistent adults in their lives. Our Kids reveals a national crisis of child neglect and emotional abandonment, and the evidence is heartbreaking. 

Consider the matter of birthdays. Those of us who have children understand the eager desire for personal affirmation that all kids feel on the anniversary of their birth. It is, as far as they are concerned, a national celebration of their personhood. In Our Kids, one interview subject, Kaya, describes her tenth birthday. “I couldn’t have a cake or anything like that because we were struggling so bad,” she remembered.  “My dad said, ‘We don’t really have the money for it. We’re going to do it in May or June.’ I was like ‘Oh, okay.’  I was pretty sad about it, but it was like ‘whatever.’” The resignation in that final statement is really a resignation to a world indifferent to her personhood.

Or take the case of Sophia, who recalls her mother’s response to her birthday, “The day after my ninth birthday, she was arrested down the street from here for prostitution. And she never came to see me. She was so close, but she chose prostitution and drugs over me.” This communicates an almost unimaginable message of worthlessness in the life of a child.

“A single society has become two different worlds of opportunity.”

Many of Putnam’s case studies reveal children who are radically disconnected from structures of nurture. Putnam tells the story of David, who isn’t allowed to visit his father in prison because he is on parole himself. “I never really had around-the-family-table dinners at all,” he muses, “so I never got to miss it.” David’s quote is unintentionally ironic. He has missed participation in a cultural institution he suspects is very valuable, a symbol of stability. Some of the children in Our Kids have attempted to cope with abandonment by adopting a pose of cynicism. So Mary Sue posts on Facebook: “Love gets you hurt; trust gets you killed.” 

These case studies are not always sad. The children often exhibit remarkable resilience, and parents generally do not intend emotional harm to children. They are often dealing with a toxic level of stress in their own lives that constrains their ability to provide what their children need. But the consequence for children is nonetheless tragic. The lack of serve-and-return interactions early in life can cause deficits in brain development and problems in social adjustment. These kids often start the education process already behind. According to one study Putnam cites, 72 percent of middle class children know the alphabet when entering school, compared to 19 percent of poor children. Children from overwhelmed and dysfunctional families can have problems with impulse control and fail to gain social skills, such as showing up on time and working with others, that future employers value. 

The most disturbing aspect of this story is not educational or economic.  It is emotional.  Many of the children Putnam highlights feel a pervasive sense of abandonment.  They have accumulated a heavy burden of suspicion and distrust. It is difficult to become a thriving, responsible adult after feeling abandoned as a child. Not impossible, but difficult.

While the book’s emphasis on stories is effective, Putnam’s voice in the book is particularly praiseworthy. He is morally offended by the findings he conveys. In his view, the findings violate America’s “foundational national pledge that God has created each of us equal.” The normal tone of academic writing is analytic and dispassionate. Putnam, in contrast, is unapologetic about his love for the American ideal and angered by its attenuation. In reaching for words sufficient for his outrage, the author quotes Proverbs: “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Putnam is doing more than presenting a social scientific case. He is urging social solidarity and calling America to a moral ideal of inclusion. 

Putnam preaches social justice as he takes on the role of prophet, warning about future social disaster. He compares America’s problem of stalled social mobility to global warming. With global warming, the circumstances we see today reflect practices of decades ago, and our current habits of pollution will determine sea levels and crop growth patterns decades into the future. On social policy, Putnam argues, the lead times are similarly long. Our current level of economic mobility for young adults reflects their economic, social, and family circumstances of two decades ago when they were raised. Those circumstances today are worse, by nearly every measure. According to Putnam, this means that social mobility “seems poised to plunge in the year ahead, shattering the American Dream.” 

The author of Our Kids is clearly a man of the left, but an older form of the left.  Putnam’s ideal is the socially mixed, economically fluid, communitarian America of the 1940s and 1950s (minus the sexism and racism).  Some of his critics have accused him of nostalgia, but the charge is unfair. His comparison of the social conditions that prevailed in post-World War II America reveals what has been lost. How these precious things might be regained is a different matter (and the weakest point of the book). Good diagnosis, in the end, is not sufficient. But all treatment and recovery begin with good diagnosis. 

Serious political action on these issues will require a shared understanding of the problem.  And this is where Our Kids shines. Putnam offers a comprehensive picture of our social and economic crisis that both includes and challenges the whole spectrum of American ideology. He challenges the left to take seriously the roles of family and religious participation. There is no escaping the fact that America’s two-tier family structure is a main source of growing class division. The wealthy and educated have often adopted a neo-traditional model – the old family structure with greater gender equality and two incomes. The poor have often adopted a shifting kaleidoscope of family arrangements in which the role of the father has become voluntary. Many children, as a result, fall through the cracks. Putnam cites a shocking figure: Compared to college-educated men, men with a high school education are four times more likely to father children with whom they don’t live, and half as likely to visit those children.

In many of Putnam’s stories, religious institutions are the last refuge of help and social order in decaying, dangerous communities. Kids who are active in their religious communities are more involved in extracurricular activities and less prone to substance abuse and delinquency. Traditionally, religious participation for the affluent and the poor was similar. But poor families are now less religiously involved than the affluent. 

There are plenty of uncomfortable findings in Our Kids for conservatives to chew on as well. Many of the social and cultural problems they decry, including family breakdown, are related to the collapse of the blue-collar economy. Putnam highlights his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, a struggling rust-belt community. In 1978, 9 percent of children were born out of wedlock – about half the national rate. By 1990, nearly 40 percent of children in Port Clinton were born out of wedlock – twice the national rate. During these twelve years, Port Clinton did not experience moral collapse; it experienced the collapse of the local economy. While cultural factors surely played a role, they could not have been decisive.

Conservatives will need to take seriously that global economic trends have made rewarding work for people with limited education rare in large portions of the country – a trend with destructive radiating social effects. And the problem has been particularly concentrated among men. As Putnam points out, real hourly wages for men with a college degree and a full-time job grew by more than 20 percent from 1980 to 2012.  During the same period, real wages fell by 22 percent for high school dropouts and by 11 percent for high school graduates. 

Putnam’s survey of possible policy responses at the end of his book is likely to disappoint both liberals and conservatives. The ideas seem obviously insufficient to the scale of the problem the author has described. But Putnam’s goal is not contained in a five-point plan.  He wants to place the collapse of the American dream for millions of Americans at the center of the political debate, in order to produce a virtuous competition of creative policy ideas from liberals and conservatives. 

“I have an old fashioned view,” Putnam recently wrote to me, “that politics is about persuading opponents, not just vilifying them. So I’m trying hard to keep focused on the kids. We need more champions for them and fewer ‘villains’ in our politics.  But my view of politics may be hopelessly outdated.”

Let us hope this is not true. And let us appreciate the important social contribution of Robert Putnam, a champion for our kids. 

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).