Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
(Originally published August 2015)
Robert Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community (2000), a thought provoking discussion of the impact of social capital, i.e., social connectedness and civic participation, on community
health and well-being. In Bowling Alone, Putnam explored in great detail and with extraordinary scholarly skill the dramatic reduction in social capital experienced by American communities during recent decades but without clearly identifying the guilty culprit. Putnam made a convincing case that social capital was a real palpable social phenomenon but left readers uncertain about the fundamental causes of its decline: television, two parent working families, American individualism, social divisions resulting from the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s, the lack of a national emergency similar to World War II or deeper root causes yet to be identified?
Fifteen years later, Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis begins with the most likely culprit of the decline in social capital in clear view, i.e. growing income inequality. Putnam uses stories of children and families, “scissors” graphs which display diverging trends between affluent families with highly educated parents and poor families headed by parents with limited education, along with scholarly summaries of research findings, to describe the multiple ways in which income inequality undermines equality of opportunity for America’s children.
Putnam is nothing if not thorough. In four chapters on Families, Parenting, Schools and Community, he identifies the multiple advantages and disadvantages of social class in America, themes that mirror to a great extent Charles Murray’s discussion in Coming Apart: The State of of White America: 1960-2010 (2012). The following is a sample of a long list of diverging trends between affluent families and poor families in the U.S. in regard to family structure and parenting practices:
“Whatever the reasons, children of less educated parents are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise, … while children of more educated parents are increasingly entering the world as a long planned objective. “ (p. 65) College educated mothers, Putnam asserts, typically delay childbearing and marriage until their late 20s or early 30s, while high school educated mothers usually have their first child in their late teens or early twenties.
Non-marital births to college educated women remain low ( below 10%) while births to mothers with no more than a high school education have risen sharply and now make up half to two thirds of births in this population.
The divorce rate for college educated parents declined after 1980 while the divorce rate continued to increase for their high school educated counterparts.
There has been “a massive class based decline in the number of children raised in two parent families,” Putnam asserts.
College educated mothers are twice as likely as high school educated women to work outside the home, a trend that has increased the difference in economic resources available to children raised in affluent and poor families.
High incarceration rates for young African American males “has … removed a very large number of young fathers from poor neighborhoods, and the effects of their absence on white and nonwhite kids alike, are known to be traumatic, leaving long lasting scars.” According to Putnam, “Having a dad in prison is… one of the most common themes in the lives of poor kids.”
Children of college educated parents are more frequently exposed to language (one Kansas study found that the children of professional parents had heard 19 million more words than children of working class parents by the time they entered kindergarten), and other forms of cognitive stimulation, experience less severe and/or chronic stress in early childhood, are exposed to fewer adversities such as child maltreatment, caregivers’ drug/alcohol problems or family violence, and are more likely than children in poor families to have experienced consistently responsive parenting. A 2011-12 national survey of children’s health found that children raised in two parent biological families were 3.5 times more likely to have experienced zero adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) than children growing up in single parent homes; furthermore, less than 1% of children in two parent biological homes had experienced four or more ACEs compared to 13.6% of children raised with a single birth parent.
Putnam writes that “One broad class difference in parenting norms turns up in virtually all studies: well-educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline and obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.” Well educated parents deliver far more “encouragements” to their children than criticism or punishment, and employ far less physical discipline on average than working class parents, according to Putnam.
As a result, children of affluent well educated parents have an enhanced ability to control impulses, focus attention and concentrate for extended periods of time; these executive functioning skills complement cognitive ability and help children succeed in school. Children who have been severely neglected or traumatized commonly have difficulty with emotion regulation, a challenge which in an extreme form is a virtual disability in school settings and social interactions.
Putnam makes a strong case that parenting practices mediate the relationship between income and educational achievement. He points to the distressing finding of Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist, that the gaps in math and reading test scores between children from affluent families and poor families have grown in recent decades. Reardon’s analysis “suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap; the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.”
Nevertheless, one of the most powerful parts of Our Kids is a comparison of two high schools in Orange County, California, one of these schools a public magnet school which a 2013 Newsweek article ranked as the 47th best high school in America and another high school ranked near the bottom of Orange County’s 67 high schools. A major theme of the family stories which give concrete meaning to the data and research to which Putnam refers is that well educated parents and upwardly mobile working class parents intentionally reside in neighborhoods with excellent schools that give their children the best opportunity for academic success. Consider the following comparisons of these two Orange County high schools:
Public magnet school Low-performing school
Spending per pupal $10,326 $9,928
Teachers’ average experience 14.9 years 15.0 years
Teachers with Master’s degree 69% 59%
Student-teacher ratio 26:1 27:1
Students eligible for free or 4% 84%
reduced price lunch
Latino ethnicity 23% 98%
Limited English proficiency 4% 47%
Graduation rate 93% 73%
Students who take SATs 65% 20%
Truancy rate 2% 33%
Suspensions per 100 students 3 64
Overall ranking among Orange 3 64
County high schools
The public magnet school is described by Putnam’s informants as a highly competitive “pressure cooker” environment in which “Tiger Moms” are actively involved in motivating their adolescents to expend maximum effort on both academics and a wide range of extra-curricular activities. Parents “regularly donate money to the schools.” It is parents’ contributions, not the difference in public per-pupil expenditures, which account for the additional resources available to high-advantage schools, Putnam asserts. Students are intensively prepared for SAT tests required for application to the best colleges. Virtually all graduates of this high school enroll in college, three-quarters in 4 year schools.
Admission to this magnet school is highly competitive and only a small fraction of applicants are accepted. The school is racially diverse: 46% Asian American, 24% non-Hispanic White, 23% Latino and 6% Black and mixed race. As described by parents and students, excellent teachers go the extra mile to help students who are struggling for any reason. In addition to academics, the school offers more than 100 extracurricular clubs, each with its own advisor and at least ten active members. The school produces “all sorts of championship teams” in a wide range of sports and the arts.
The public magnet school is an example of what is required for schools to excel in highly competitive academic environments: well prepared, highly motivated students, parents with an exceptional investment in their children’s academic success who are able and willing to make a financial contribution to their children’s schools, first rate teachers, a dazzling array of academic and other opportunities and a tradition of achievement across a wide range of activities.
After reading about this high performing school, it is painful to read about the low performing school located not more than 15-20 miles down the Orange Freeway. Putnam interviews two sisters in their 20s who grew up in a working class family with their grandparents due to their parents’ drug addiction and/or incarceration and who attended this school. One of the girls comments that “Going to school every day was scary. There were kids with guns in the school.” Students “will literally spit in the teachers’ faces, start fights, try to kill them.” Disrespect for teachers was common, according to these girls. Teachers and administrators seemed “apathetic and unhelpful. Classroom instruction and learning were not priorities.” “They (teachers) don’t care if we learn or not,” one of the sisters stated.
According to these young women, honors students were “a mysterious separate caste” who “stay to themselves.” Neither of the girls participated in any extracurricular activity, and claimed they were not allowed to participate in volleyball and the school’s reading club despite efforts to do so. One of the girls asked to be transferred to a continuation school, an alternative program for students not making adequate progress in regular high school. It was only in this school that she made academic progress because, according to Putnam, “she pursued a guided independent study and succeeded at it because she no longer had the distractions and bullying she had encountered (in her high school) and because the staff of the continuation school turned out to be surprisingly conscientious.”
The oldest sister dropped out of high school before the end of her junior year, works at a job she hates and has invested all of her hopes in her younger sister who views her family as “losers.” The younger girl says to Putnam “no one’s done anything in our family. We have no people going to the Marines (or Army) …no people graduated from university; no people becoming doctors or cops or anything.”
Several of the youth from low income families interviewed for the book have a dim view of their futures, and a few seem on the verge of despair. One of these young people, Kayla, “has no stable trustworthy adults in her life … she has one great fear – kind of having my life go downhill … everything kind of falling apart.” An interviewer asks her, “Have you ever had a time where you just felt like you couldn’t make it?” Kayla replies, “A lot actually.” Putnam comments that “Only somewhat more (children and older youth) live like Kayla, amidst the gloomy ruins of multiple broken families surviving at the end of destitution.”
Prospects and Solutions
Our Kids describes a social world in which “growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages … means that rich Americans (i.e., well-educated) and poor Americans (i.e., high school only) are living, learning and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping stones to upward mobility …” Putnam comments that “it took several decades for gaps in parenting and schooling to develop; and it will take decades more for the full impact of those divergent childhood influences to manifest themselves in adult lives.”
Putnam is surprisingly vague regarding the best indicators of upward mobility, and muddles the discussion of trends by engaging in myth making about upward mobility in the 1950s when he was growing up in a small town in Ohio. Timothy Smeeding, Robert Erickson and Markus Jantii asserted in 2011 that “The United States is the most economically unequal rich nation on Earth and has been so for at least the last forty years.” For many years, a large degree of income inequality in the U.S. was masked by economic gains that lifted all social classes. However, income stagnation or even decline for working class and middle class families over the past few decades has led to a zero sum game: if families with the highest incomes are becoming wealthier (and they are), other groups are becoming poorer. This is the social context in which the opportunity gaps between children of well-educated and poorly educated families have widened.
Putnam makes a number of sensible suggestions of strategies and programs that can narrow the nation’s opportunity gap. He comments that “sustained economic revival for low paid workers would be as close to a magic bullet as I can imagine,” but he offers no suggestion for how low skilled service sector jobs could become well paid employment. Putnam supports investments in early childhood education and in home visiting programs for low income mothers. He advocates for reduction in the country’s incarceration rate, for expanded public investments in community colleges and most concretely for an end to “pay to play” policies that require low income families to pay large fees for their children to participate in extracurricular activities. In other words, Putnam supports investment in a wide range of well-known poverty reduction strategies. What he does not do is address income inequality head on, a highly revealing omission for a scholar with his knowledge and insight. Apparently, in the current social milieu a renowned scholar cannot imagine a world in which there is any limit on top incomes or wealth or any bottom to destitution, not even child homelessness. All that can be done to shore up an American Dream of a better life for one’s children is to fund a range of programs that accept extreme and growing income inequality as a given, and seek to prepare children from low income families to compete with their advantaged peers in educational settings. This is, to put it mildly, not a strategy likely to reduce the opportunity gap on a system wide basis. If this is the best strategy for reducing the opportunity gap that can be imagined, then the American Dream of equal opportunity is on its last legs.
Bramlett, M., & Randel, L., “Adverse Family Experiences Among Children In Nonparental Care, 2011-12, National Health Statistics Report, #74, May 7, 2014.
Murray, Charles, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Random House, 2012.
Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of The American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Smeeding, T., Erickon, R. & Jantti, M., editors, Persistence, Privilege and Parenting: The Comparative Study of Intergenerational Mobility, Russell sage Foundation, 2011.