Friday, August 28, 2015

Our Kids -- Thoughts About Robert Putnam's Book

I just read Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam. Robert Putnam is a very distinguished public intellectual. In this book he shows a great deal of evidence that the college graduates in America are bringing up their children to be as well educated and well off as they are themselves. While once people with a high school education or less were giving their kids better opportunities that they themselves had, this is no longer true. The increasing disparity between the kids of the college educated and the kids of the high school educated is of great concern to Putnam. The book convinces me that it should also be of concern to any American with an ounce of moral character.

The book includes a chapter on Port Clinton where Putnam graduated from high school in the 1950s. It then has chapters on families, parenting, schooling and community; each of these chapters focuses on a specific place: Bend (Oregon), Atlanta, Orange County (California), and Philadelphia. A final substantive chapter is titled "What is to be Done".

Chapters tend to have narrative sections based on extensive interviews that were carried out as part of the research. The authors interview young people and their parents, where one set of parents in each location had college educations and the other set had high school or less. Interviews include African Americans and Hispanic Americans as well as whites. The chapters also have analytic sections, drawing on a wealth of statistical data.

The American Dream

The myth of America, "the American Dream", is that America is the land of opportunity. We think that any American can become president because Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln rose from poverty to do so, because Jack Kennedy did so even though he was Roman Catholic, because Barack Obama did so even though his father was a black Kenyan. Similarly, we think that any child can grow up in America to be rich -- look at Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Bill Gates, all of whom were rich beyond most dreams of avarice and far, far richer than their parents.

Putnam points out that in fact the Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Bush families demonstrate that someone from the family of a president is far more likely to be president than someone who grew up in a powerless family. Similarly, the child of a family of great wealth is far more likely in America to grow up to have great wealth than is the child born in poverty. Indeed, relative mobility in America has been much like that in other developed countries.

What has been true through much of history is that the rapid development of America has meant that most American parents could reasonably expect their children to be better educated, more affluent, healthier, longer lived, and more influential than the parents were themselves. A rising tide lifts all boats!

The Dream Is Gone

The book advances the thesis that the children of upper class kids in America (typically defined in the book as the children of parents with college degrees) are now likely to do better than their parents; however, the children of lower class parents (typically defined as having high school education or less) are likely to be stuck in the same situation or worse than their parents. Putnam advances evidence to show that upper class parents use different parenting approaches than do lower class parents, that upper class parents tend to stay together to raise their kids while lower class fathers are more often not involved, that upper class families live in safer neighborhoods than do lower class families, all of which help make upper class kids more able to reach the upper classes themselves.

In discussing K-12 schools, Putnam indicates that input indicators such as per child funding and class size do not differ between schools in educated neighborhoods and those in uneducated neighborhoods; the very different outcomes from schools drawing from families with well educated parents versus those with poorly educated parents is the culture of the students themselves. Neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class, and kids in I-23 usually go to neighborhood schools. The upper class kids are more motivated to learn and more docile in the classroom. Thus it is culture that counts. Moreover, classes full of upper class kids tend to be easier to teach and more rewarding to teachers than classes full of lower class kids. Since schools get equal financial inputs, schools in upper class neighborhoods tend to be more successful in teaching the kids that they receive. Indeed, teachers prefer to deal with docile, motivated upper class kids, and so the schools in richer neighborhoods are likely to recruit better, more experienced teachers.

The book also suggests that upper class neighborhoods are better places to raise kids in the sense that they are less violent and less troubled by drugs. Children growing up in neighborhoods ruled by street gangs are subject to more stress, and that stress has serious negative consequences.

This situation is relatively new. Neighborhoods today are far more segregated by the income and education of their residents than they were in the past. Due to the shipment of jobs overseas and the loss of income from unionized factory work people with little education who once would have had factory jobs with union wages and protection, now no longer do. Thus those without college educations tend to be poor and trapped in their situations. The kids who don't go beyond high school tend to have children earlier, have less stable marital relationships, more money troubles, and indeed more children than do college graduates of the same age.

The increasing separation of affluent from poor neighborhoods means that poor whites, poor blacks, and poor Hispanics are the members of the lower class. Putnam suggests that racism is no longer the problem as much as it once was, and today there are well educated blacks and Hispanics who raise their kids much as do well educated whites, and whose kids have about the same chance of themselves becoming well educated, parents in stable marriages as do the children of well educated whites.

I would note however that poverty is twice as prevalent among Hispanic/Latino populations and more than twice as common among African American and Indian populations than among white populations. Perhaps we need to focus more on the black, Indian and Hispanic populations' kids than Putnam would suggest.

The Internet

The book tends to pay little attention to the Internet and the social networking that it enables. I am in an unusual situation in that my parents were both immigrants to the USA and none of my maternal nor paternal cousins lives in this country. (My inlaws do live here, and I am in touch with them via the Internet.) I am in touch with cousins in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and Sweden via the Internet; for example, a cousin's widow and I were able to participate early this year in a project of a young cousin who is in college in Scotland via the Internet.

Similarly, I am fairly active on the Internet with my local community. For example, I used the Internet to keep up with the plans to change use of two local schools last spring, went to a community meeting about those plans that I learned about via the Internet, and sent email messages to my county council members requesting their help on the matter -- emails that were answered.

I belong to a local book club which meets once a month. While only a dozen or so member of the club show up at the monthly meetings, I send information about the books we read to about 100 via email each month, and correspond with several each month via the club listserve. There is a club blog where I post summaries of the club discussions, and those are being downloaded a couple of hundred times per month.

Thus, it is my experience that Internet mediated social networking has implications for the problems that Robert Putnam has identified.

I Focus on Culture and Cultural Change

I note that Asian Americans seem to still live the American dream. I also note that the well educated American family is different culturally than the families of Americans where the parents never went as beyond high school. I suggest that there are two subcultures, rather distinct, within the larger U.S. culture -- a culture of the upper middle class and a culture of the lower class. Both subcultures have the same federal government institutions, both have access to pretty much the same media, but in other ways the two subcultures have institutions that function in quite different ways.

Perhaps, then we should look at the cultural difference between suburban America and slum America. If the solution to the crisis in the American dream is too change the culture of the lower classes in the country, it will be hard and a long process. Cultural change is not easy to accomplish.

Putnam suggests that the change in these subcultures in American have occurred over time. When he graduated from high school in 1959 in the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio, neighborhoods were not nearly so segregated as they are today. The United States then had the strongest economy in the world and globalization had not begun the process of shifting manufacturing jobs out of the USA. Kids whose parents were college professors and kids whose parents were high-school-grad factory workers might well live close to one another, attend the same schools and belong to the same teams and clubs. This was before illegal drug use was common and drug dealers were common sights in poor neighborhoods. The research cited in the book focuses on the last 35 years, and suggests that the negative trends in the subculture of the poor were working during much or most of that period. Now families are less stable, gangs are more common, drugs are more available and more widely used, fathers are more often in jail in the lower class neighborhoods. The neighborhoods in which the college grads live have been much less damaged.

Source: Wikipedia "Income inequality in the United States"
Source: Wikipedia "Income inequality in the United States"
The top graph shows that we are in a new "Guilded Age": the portion of national income obtained by the very rich has reached levels now that are comparable to those reached before the Great Depression or the end of the Guilded Age. That portion had gone steadily downward from the stock market crash in 1929 until the mid 1970s, but rose again in the period covered by Robert Putnam's analysis.

The lower graph showed that the top fifth of Americans by income did significantly better economically after 1979 than did the the lower four quintiles. Wikipedia reports:
The income growth of the average American family closely matched that of economic productivity until some time in the 1970s. While it began to stagnate, productivity has continued to climb. According to the 2014 Global Wage Report by the International Labor Organization, the widening disparity between wages and productivity is evidence that there has been a significant shift of GDP share going from labor to capital, and this trend is playing a significant role in growing inequality.
I suggest that the high and increasing return to higher education is strongly related to the growth of income of the fifth quintile of income, and the low rate of economic progress of the working class is due to the low growth of incomes in the three lower quintiles.

The Prescription

Putnam offers a number of suggestions that might improve life chances for poor kids. Some of these seem past due for implementation in the USA. For example, we have far too many men in jail, facing long sentences for relatively minor crimes; sentences should be shorter and greater efforts should be made to reintegrate the sentenced people into their homes and communities after they serve their sentences. Similarly, many countries (and virtually all developed countries) offer more generous leave for new parents than does the United States; improving leave policies for new parents seems a useful approach to improving parenting. Offering long term contraception for at risk teens in order to prevent kids too young to provide child care and in need of time to develop their own economic potential from having babies as teenagers.

However, I doubt that Putnam's approach will work very well. It fails to deal with the underlying economic issues that created the underclass culture. My reading of history also suggests that it takes a major disruption to break the political power of the very rich, and today the very rich Americans are richer than ever, have more political power than usual, and don't seem disposed to do much for the underclass.

The book does not talk much about individual talent and potential. I suspect that in each socio-economic class there are kids born more and less gifted. However, the talents of the poor are not being adequately recognized and developed in the subculture of poverty. How much does the nation lose if a Lincoln or Jackson fails to develop because he comes from poorly educated parents and grows up in a bad neighborhood, attending schools that teach badly? A new Henry Ford or Thomas Edison? What if we miss the next Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez? I think it important not only that kids be given a fighting chance to do better than their parents, but that the nation be given a fighting chance to develop the best minds and characters in each generation, no matter how poor the parents of those kids.

Final Comments

I recommend this book highly. Robert Putnam seems to have described a serious social problem in the United States, one that has not had nearly enough attention.

I guess I am a policy wonk, and I found the sections of the chapters presenting statistical evidence from national studies to be very good -- detailed information, well sources, presented succinctly.

I also found the ethnographic material helpful. I am a 1955 high school graduate with three university degrees, so I found the material about Putnam's school companions and the recently college educated folk to be relatively familiar (although those discussions provided me some fresh insights to the families of my more affluent nieces and nephews). However, I found the materials on the high school educated moms and dads and their kids very helpful in trying to understand the problems that they face and how they try to deal with those problems.


John Daly said...

"According to the annual Kids Count Data Report, which ranks states based on the well-being of children living there, about 3 million more children were impoverished in 2013 than in 2008, an increase of 3 percent that brings the total number of children in poverty to 16,087,000."

John Daly said...

"Several of you have asked me why I post quotes from the 1830s, 1910s, 1930s, and 1960s and early 1970s. It’s because in those four periods Americans reasserted power over financial elites that threatened to usurp our economy and democracy. Unlike societies that have succumbed to fascism, communism, totalitarianism, and violent revolution when their people become frustrated and fearful, America reforms itself. That’s what we did in the 1830s when elites accrued unwarranted privileges, and we abolished property rights for voting, enabled small businesses to incorporate without legislation, and fought off a national bank; between 1901 and 1916 during the Progressive Era, when we established a progressive income tax, enacted pure food and drug laws, and split up the giant trusts; during the New Deal of the 1930s, when we created Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek, and required employers to negotiate with labor unions; and in the 1960s and early 1970s when we enacted Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare and Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Act, and the Federal Election Campaign Act.

"Another wave of fundamental reform is on its way." Robert Reich

John Daly said...

Video: "U.S. Schools Still Segregated"