Saving Our Kids

The reaction to Our Kids offers conclusive evidence that reading comprehension is not required to become a columnist for the New York Times. In his review of the book, David Brooks praises Putnam for assembling a “definitive collection of data” on the growing class divide. Curiously, he cites only one statistic from the voluminous book to support his conservative view that cultural pathologies are sufficient to explain poverty. Brooks is correct about one thing: there is mention of both culture and values in Our Kids. What he completely overlooks is Putnam’s main argument that inequalities in economic opportunities (not class differences in culture or values) are responsible for the disadvantages of the urban poor.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
by Robert D. Putnam
Simon and Schuster, 2015
286 pages

Ross Douthat of the New York Times also concludes that Our Kids “offers grist for social conservatives who suspect it would take a cultural counterrevolution to bring back the stable working class families of an earlier America.” Given that countries with higher levels of marriage are more unequal on average, and that many nations had marriage rates fall faster than the United States without experiencing the same dramatic increase in social inequality, Douthat’s claim is suspect, to say nothing of his comprehension of Putnam’s book.

Notwithstanding such attempts to hijack Our Kids for the Republican cause, a closer examination of Putnam’s book reveals that, rather than being “grist” for social conservatives, it is actually a wake-up call for the entire nation—including liberals and a suite of policy prescriptions they support.

Much like William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears, Our Kids takes up the cause of the urban underclass, except that this time the focus is on both White and Black children. We are introduced to Port Clinton, which Putnam claims was once “a passable embodiment of the American Dream,” but has now turned into “a split-screen American nightmare” (p. 1). The story of the town and its inhabitants is told through ethnographic interviews with local residents, supported by secondary data analysis and statistical evidence.

Putnam writes that as successive graduating Port Clinton High School classes “entered an ever worsening local economy, the social norms that undergirded Port Clinton’s community in the 1950s and 1960s gradually eroded.” He notes, in particular, that the “rate of unwed births absolutely exploded” (p. 21) as the local economy collapsed during the 1980s. This observation echoes Wilson’s earlier work on the Black underclass, which also noted that marriage rates fell faster among jobless Blacks than among those that were gainfully employed.

Throughout the book, Putnam examines four widening opportunity gaps (family, parenting, schooling, community) and documents the various ways class divides in each have increased over the past forty years. His approach is mainly descriptive. He rarely dives into the casual questions that erupted in the wake of publication of Our Kids, but when he does so, he is even-handed in his explanation. While adjudicating between structural and cultural explanations of urban poverty, for example, he writes that “the most reasonable view is that both are important” and that both feed into each other. He uses Glen Elder’s classic study of children growing up during the Great Depression to illustrate this point. Elder found that “when fathers lost jobs and income, their ties with their family eroded, leading to a significant decline in the effectiveness of parental control” (pp. 74-75). Structural and cultural causes of inequality are inextricably intertwined and continue to be “plainly visible” in the lives of Port Clinton’s residents (p. 74).

In a passage that many conservatives would rather skip, he notes that “unwed births and single-parent families are widely distributed across the country.” Rather than being concentrated in progressive areas, he notes that “the opposite seems to be true: divorce and single parent families are especially common in the Southeastern, heavily Republican, socially conservative Bible belt” (p. 75).

Regardless of the causes, Putnam cites heartbreaking statistics and studies on just how early children become negatively affected by urban poverty. For instance, he notes that children growing up in low socioeconomic households are far more likely to have high levels of cortisol in their body, leading to higher incidence of stress, anxiety, and depression among them. Additionally, the area of the brain that regulates emotions is less developed among poor children and they are also less able to concentrate on tasks because their brains are “trained to maintain constant surveillance of the environment for new threats” (p. 116). Cultural factors may play a role in reproducing inequality, but it is also clear that in Port Clinton poverty literally gets under the skin.

As if these were not enough, low-income parents have less time to spend with their children because of intermittent schedules, multiple jobs and lack of paid sick leave, putting them at a further disadvantage. Studies have shown that only 19% of poor children know the alphabet when they begin school, compared with 72% of middle-class kids. Inequality also has dramatically increased the stress on low-income parents, with almost half reporting stress in 2005, compared with about one-fifth in 1975 (p. 131). Parental stress wears on children, harming their emotional development and mental health. There’s been much pressure on schools in the United States to level the playing field, but we now know that they have been rather unsuccessful at countering such trends. Putnam cites Sean Reardon’s work in this regard. Reardon has shown that the achievement gap between poor and rich children has increased by an alarming 30 to 40% between 1975 and 2001 (p. 161). To be sure, disparities in school funding explain some of the problem. But, as James Heckman has noted, “The gaps in cognitive achievement by level of maternal education… are mostly present at age six.” Together, these compounding disadvantages have made upward mobility a vanishing reality in the United States (p. 162).

Putnam revives a striking chart from the National Education Longitudinal Study (at left) which shows that the brightest children in the lowest socio-economic bracket are less likely to complete college (29%) than the lowest-scoring children in the highest socio-economic bracket (30%). Calling America an equal opportunity society is to insist, as Henry George once noted, “that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and others artificially loaded with lead.”

The most interesting section of Putnam’s book comes at the end, where he advocates for massive public investment to close the opportunity gap. Putnam cites three worthwhile studies detailing the huge return on investment that such spending would reap. For instance, Harry Holzer and his colleagues find that child poverty costs $500 billion a year, or 4% of GDP, by increasing health expenditures, reducing economic output, and increasing crime. Clive Belfield and others find that the social burden of young people (aged 16-24) who are not at work or in school is about $4.75 trillion (over the current cohort’s life span). Each youth annually costs society $37,450 (including costs of crime, as well as lost economic output and tax revenue). Katherine Bradbury and Robert Triest examine two cities, Salt Lake City and Memphis, with dramatically different upward mobility. They find that if Memphis had the same levels of intergenerational mobility as Salt Lake City, the 10-year growth rate of real per capita income would grow by 27 percentage points. By creating an opportunity society, the United States could dramatically improve its GDP growth. Investing in kids is a win-win-win, and it should be a national priority (pp. 231-233).

When Putnam gets down to the business of discussing actual solutions, he doesn’t want government to get out of the way, but rather sees government as a key to boosting opportunity. However, conservatives may be dismayed to see him quickly dispense with their argument. Instead of suggesting a “cultural counterrevolution,” as Douthat envisions, Putnam notes that,

“Marriage policy”—reducing the number of single-parent families by restoring the norm of traditional marriage—has been stressed by some conservative commentators. Regardless of the merits of that objective, however, the hard fact is that well-meaning policy experiments to increase the rate of stable marriage have not worked.” (p. 244)

Putnam is right to avoid marriage as a possible solution, as international evidence has long suggested that it wouldn’t work. By one important OECD estimate, changes in household structure can explain only 11% of the increase in inequality within countries.

Instead of focusing on marriage, Putnam points to contraception as a way to reduce unplanned births. But then he argues that “money obviously matters,” citing work from North Carolina showing that plant closings “had large measurable effects on children’s reading and math scores.” He approvingly cites Lane Kenworthy, who writes that “government cash transfers of just a few thousand dollars could give a significant lifelong boost to the children who need it most” (p. 246). To close parenting gaps, Putnam goes on to advocate for paid parental leave, an end to the requirement that new mothers on welfare actively seek work, and government-funded daycare and preschool programs. On schooling, Putnam again parts ways with conservatives, writing that, “careful studies have concluded that charter schools are no panacea and generally do not narrow the class gap” (p. 253). Instead, he argues for “publicly subsidized mixed income housing,” noting an experiment in Mount Laurel in which 96% of poor children who moved into a wealthier neighborhood graduated from high school, compared with only 29% graduating among those who remained in their poor community (p. 252). He further advocates for boosting money for low-income school districts, as well as more funding for apprenticeships and community colleges. To bolster community, Putnam recommends we invest in poor neighborhoods through wage and job supports and make more of a commitment to increasing neighborhood integration.

When debating inequality and the family, there is a peculiar dissonance. The Left, because it argues that families need support from government and civil society, can offer palatable solutions to the opportunity crisis. On the other hand, the Right argues that declining opportunity is caused largely by the bad morals of the poor. This means the Right’s main solution to inequality has been reduced largely to hand waving and tut-tutting. This is not an exaggeration: Charles Murray wrote in Coming Apart, “A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice.” It is nearly impossible to find a serious conservative public policy solution to our low opportunity society. The Right’s explanation has the advantage of obscuring the extent to which the policies of the 1%—war on labor unions, tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of the financial sector—have driven inequality by benefiting the rich. Because conservatives obscure the cause of rising inequality, they point to the wrong solutions: for them government has no role to play in reviving the middle class, other than a modest boost to the Earned Income Tax Credit (and even this only comes up as a dodge to increasing the minimum wage).

Putnam rightfully rejects these arguments and puts forward a vision—universal pre-K, government-subsidized childcare, investment in public schools, and direct cash transfers to the poor—that most liberals would happily support. It is sad to see such a well-researched and fascinating book portrayed as a conservative pamphlet. Hopefully, it will drive more people to actually engage the argument and discover the profound erosion of the American Dream.