Robert Putnam’s Our Kids

The most consequential shift in American family life after World War II occurred entirely along class lines, handicapping children born to growing numbers of lower- and middle-class parents in ways that would have been considered shocking and unacceptable to every previous generation of Americans. The result has been a drastic decrease in upward mobility, and a widening cleavage in life experience among the youth of America. In Our Kids, Robert Putnam lays bare the devastation wrought by the collapse of America’s families and the corresponding loss of American social life that has ravaged vast swaths of the nation’s interior, leaving behind broken families, dysfunctional communities and a steep and obscured road from poverty to prosperity.

Our Kids begins in the personal, with Robert Putnam conducting a survey of the graduates of his high school class from his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950s. His evocation of the past isn’t driven by nostalgia or false memories – there were class differences, certainly, and casual racism was taken for granted – but the life stories of his peers, whether black or white, male or female, or from poor or rich families, bear out a startling fact: all of them, by the time they reach maturity, have attained greater educational and financial success than their parents managed. Putnam profiles some of them, giving us a sense of the forces that shaped their lives: there is Don, the “soft-spoken white working-class kid,” whose family owned neither a car nor a television. “I didn’t know that I was poor until I went to college and took Economics 101 and found out that I had been ‘deprived,’ Don tells Putnam. He plays sports and takes piano lessons, at the insistence of his mother, and the family’s regular church attendance – made possibly via carpool with neighbours –pays off in unforeseen ways when a minister with connections to a religiously affiliated university suggests that Don look into attending, and even informs him of the generous financial aid packages he would otherwise have been unaware of. Then there are Jesse and Cheryl, Putnam’s only two black classmates, whose families fled to Ohio to escape the anti-black violence of Mississippi. Neither of their parents were educated beyond elementary school, but through the hard work and dedication of both their parents – the father worked in the local gypsum mines and in a fruit-packing plant, while the mother cleaned houses – the family never wanted for anything. “When we got to Ohio, my dad always had a job, so we always had food and a place to live,” said Jesse. Both children experienced exclusion and casual derision for the colour of their skin, but both also found acceptance: Jesse on the football field and as president of the student council, and Cheryl as a good student and precocious reader. Neither of their parents ever expected them to go to college, but Jesse’s football coach took it as a given that colleges would be interested in him, and eager to offer him a scholarship, and the wealthy white lady whose home Cheryl’s mother cleaned, upon learning of Cheryl’s grades, makes it her personal mission to get Cheryl to college: “I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without that lady going to bar for me, putting on that fur coat of hers and marching down the principal’s office. Twice!”

These uplifting little vignettes contrast sadly with the contemporary families Putnam profiles: dysfunctional homes, absent fathers, and shrunken or non-existent local communities. America’s upper-middle and upper-class families live lives recognizable to the families of 1950s Port Clinton, but for the middle and lower-class families of America, the floor has collapsed. Consider:

In the college-educated, upper third of American society, a “neo-traditional” marriage pattern has emerged. It mirrors the 1950s family in many respects, except that both partners now typically work outside of the home, they delay marriage and childbearing until their careers are under way, and they divide domestic duties more evenly. The result is something like Ozzie-and-Harriet – except that Harriet is now a lawyer or a social worker, Ozzie spends more time with the kids, and on two incomes they can afford a few more luxuries. These neo-traditional marriages are more egalitarian in the gender division of labor, and they have become nearly as durable as the 1950s model, as divorce rates among this upper third have retreated from the peaks of the 1970s. For the children of these families the news is good, as we shall see: the way they are being raised leads to more positive outcomes.

Sounds ideal, right? These are the winners of the cultural revolution, and they’ve increasingly come to self-segregate, choosing cities and suburbs that represent only this “upper third” of America. But in their bubble of privilege and isolation, they are oblivious to the plight of the bottom two-thirds, who have not fared nearly as well:

In the high-school-educated, lower third of the population, by contrast, a new, more kaleidoscopic pattern began to emerge in which childbearing became increasingly disconnected from marriage, and sexual partnerships became less durable. In this model, dubbed “fragile families” by the sociologist Sara McLanahan and her collaborators, a child’s parents may never have been married or even stably connected to each other. Even if the parents were married at the time of the child’s birth, that marriage was frail, as divorce rates in this social stratum continued to rise. Because both parents likely moved on to other partners, with whom they also had children, even family units with two adults often included step-parents and step-siblings. More common, of course, were single-parent families, when one parent jumped or got pushed off the marriage-go-round.

The families Putnam profiles from that upper-third are even more devoted to their children’s future success than the families of Port Clinton in the 1950s: they have more disposable income with which to purchase tutors, college councillors, and psychiatrists, or to help their children’s schools, whether private or public, fund lavish extracurricular activities, such as museum visits or cultural trips abroad. And while they preach a relaxed, post-sexual-revolution social vision, they nonetheless keep close tabs on their sons and daughters, monitoring their dating lives, inviting romantic partners to dinner, and even conspiring with the parents of boyfriends and girlfriends to limit their children’s unsupervised time together.

But what of the children of the bottom two-thirds? They grow up largely unsupervised, with no one looking over their shoulder to help them with homework, turn off the television at night, or steer them away from bad influences and malignant peer groups. Their neighborhoods are often violent, the sorts of places children can’t safely roam at night, and their neighbours aren’t always on speaking terms with them: these are not communities, with a common civic life, so much as temporary holding cells. Fathers are rare, and married fathers even rarer – more common is an absent father and a string of boyfriends or impermanent sexual relationships. Needless to say, these family dynamics are not conducive to raising happy, productive or well-adjusted children, let alone children capable of competing in the increasingly cold, calculating meritocracy that ruthlessly sorts them into either the well-paying and secure knowledge economy or the low-paying, insecure “gig” economy. Worse, still, their outlook towards life and their fellow citizens is coloured by these early experiences:

From the late 1970s to the early 2010s the fraction of 12th graders from more educated homes (the top third) who say that most people can be trusted fell by roughly a third, whereas the fraction of trusters from the least educated third of homes fell by roughly one half. Nearly six out of seven poor kids nowadays choose the distrustful option.

Social trust is rapidly collapsing, driven by this shocking decline in the integrity of the American family, and if it is not soon arrested and reversed, America will find itself incapable of functioning as a democratic nation.

Our Kids pairs well with Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, in that both address themselves to this cleavage in American family structure, going over the same data and using some of the same devices to compare and contrast the life outcomes of America’s children over the decades. Both books, while exhaustive in documenting America’s ailments, are short on solutions. For Murray, the problem is primarily economic: America in the 21st century has an economy that rewards the rarer gifts of intelligence and punishes the majority of people who cannot code, do complex math, or parse legal documents. For Putnam, a possible solution lies in mixing up America’s now-segregated communities, forcibly integrating low-income families into high-income neighborhoods and schools, that they might avail themselves of the advantages and opportunities afforded by functioning communities. The problem, which he cannot say out loud, is that in 2021, there are too few of these high-functioning communities and too many broken, dysfunctional ones. My own, cynical impression is that these changes have evolved to such a degree that they’re no longer amenable to political solutions: no tweaking with the tax code or bulldozing of suburban building guidelines can turn back these tides.