Social scientists do much of their work with little fanfare; some make names for themselves as experts on specific areas of concern, but most have a small sphere of influence. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam is a notable exception whose work reaches far beyond typical academic circles. His 1995 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” and later Business Relationships of the same title captured the imagination of many intellectuals and vaulted the term “social capital” into the national lexicon. Putnam’s work has earned him national and international acclaim, including opportunities to meet and consult with three US presidents as well as other world leaders.
Putnam’s latest work, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, shines a spotlight on a complex and vexing issue that many Americans would rather ignore: the growing opportunity gap in the United States. He questions if the American Dream is still within the grasp of most Americans, pairing stories from interviews with young adults and their families with decades of quantitative data on a wide array of measures of social and economic mobility and well-being.
Especially in the wake of the Great Recession, much ink has been spilled highlighting the widening gap between rich and poor. As politicians, pundits, and professors have been quick to point out, 99 percent of Americans have lost economic ground in recent decades. In terms of wealth and income, only the top one percent of households have seen economic gains. The richest are getting even richer, and almost everyone else is losing.
These numbers are unsettling to be sure, and economists are right to draw collective attention to the trends. But a focus on the 99 percent risks missing the widening and increasingly intractable gaps between socioeconomic classes, important pieces to the much more complex puzzle of inequality in America. Putnam’s new book challenges readers to consider the implications of inequality from multiple vantage points, and his findings should cause people across the ideological spectrum to squirm.
Instead of looking back to see what has happened once a generation has reached the end of life, Putnam looks forward to investigate what is happening to children right now and in recent decades to see what it portends for the future. Although he acknowledges growing inequality in income and wealth, he sees equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, as the best proxy for whether America is living up to its ideals. He also contends that relative mobility (whether members of society are free to move up and down the socioeconomic scale) is a better measure of societal wellbeing than absolute mobility (whether society as a whole is becoming more wealthy), provided absolute mobility is modestly positive.
In many ways, Our Kids picks up where Bowling Alone left off in chronicling declining social capital in America, but this time with a specific look into the breakdown of community and family structures and the resulting opportunity gap between children of different socioeconomic groups. Putnam worries that we no longer feel a collective concern for the next generation but instead think in terms of “my kids” or “your kids,” “rich kids” or “poor kids.” He calls his readers to look anew at America’s youth and their struggles, seeing them all as “our kids” for whom we have responsibility.
Throughout the book, Putnam reflects on his own experience growing up in the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio, a place he describes as “a passable embodiment of the American Dream”—the sort of place, he fears, that no longer truly exists today. He opens the book with a look at how his hometown has changed since his childhood in the 1950s. He surveys his high school classmates, who came of age in a time of upward mobility, an “era of full employment and strong unions.” He finds that three out of four of his classmates are more educated than their parents, most of the men (but few of the women) earned college degrees, the community provided significant support, and socioeconomic class made little difference for economic advancement.
Putnam then fast forwards to present-day Port Clinton, where a factory, mine, and Army base have all closed. He describes a bleak community marked by high unemployment and despair. The mixed income, close-knit Port Clinton community of Putnam’s childhood has stratified into high-income neighborhoods along Lake Erie and high-poverty areas inland. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of single-parent households doubled and the divorce rate rose fivefold.
Broadening his focus beyond Port Clinton, Putnam devotes the rest of his book to its animating question: “Do youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds in fact have roughly equal life chances, and has that changed in recent years?” Putnam wrestles with this puzzle in chapters that examine how families, parenting, schooling, and communities are changing. The data reveal stark differences in family structure, with a two-tiered pattern emerging of traditional and “kaleidoscopic” families. Higher-educated households are much more likely to include two parents, whereas in the lower-educated tier, childbearing is no longer linked to marriage and family structures are more fragile. Putnam suggests that economics, culture, and mass incarceration all contribute to these changes.