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Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis Paperback – March 29, 2016
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“There are just a few essential reads if you want to understand the American social and political landscape today. Robert Putnam’s Our Kids . . . deserve[s] to be on that list.” (David Brooks The New York Times)
“Robert D. Putnam is technically a Harvard social scientist, but a better description might be poet laureate of civil society. In Our Kids, Putnam brings his talent for launching a high-level discussion to a timely topic. . . . No one can finish Our Kids and feel complacent about equal opportunity.” (Jason DeParle The New York Times Book Review)
“Putman’s new book is an eye-opener. When serious political candidates maintain that there are no classes in America, Putnam shows us the reality — and it is anything but reassuring." (Alan Wolfe Washington Post Book World)
“Much of the current debate about inequality has a strangely abstract quality, focusing on the excesses of the 1 per cent without really coming to terms with what has happened to the American middle class over the past two generations. Into this void steps the political scientist Robert Putnam, with a truly masterful volume that should shock Americans into confronting what has happened to their society.” (Francis Fukuyama The Financial Times)
“Robert D. Putnam vividly captures a dynamic change in American society—the widening class-based opportunity gap among young people. The diminishing life chances of lower-class families and the expanding resources of the upper-class are contrasted in sharp relief in Our Kids, which also includes compelling suggestions of what we as a nation should do about this trend. Putnam’s new book is a must-read for all Americans concerned about the future of our children.” (William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University)
“Robert Putnam weaves together scholarship and storytelling to paint a truly troubling picture of our country and its future. Our Kids makes it absolutely clear that we need to put aside our political bickering and fix how this country provides opportunity for its millions of poor children. This book should be required reading for every policymaker in America, if not every American.” (Geoffrey Canada, President, the Harlem Children’s Zone)
“In yet another path-breaking book about America’s changing social landscape, Robert Putnam investigates how growing income gaps have shaped our children so differently. His conclusion is chilling: social mobility ‘seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American dream.’ Must reading from the White House to your house.” (David Gergen)
“With clarity and compassion, Robert Putnam tells the story of the great social issue of our time: the growing gap between the lives of rich and poor children, and the diminishing prospects of children born into disadvantage. A profoundly important book and a powerful reminder that we can and must do better.” (Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character)
“The book’s chief and authoritative contribution is its careful presentation for a popular audience of important work on the erosion, in the past half century, of so many forms of social, economic, and political support for families, schools, and communities. . . . Our Kids is a passionate, urgent book.” (Jill Lepore The New Yorker)
"A thoughtful and persuasive book." (The Economist)
"Highly readable. . . . An insightful book that paints a disturbing picture of the collapse of the working class and the growth of an upper class that seems to be largely unaware of the other's precarious existence." (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
About the Author
Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Nationally honored as a leading humanist and a renowned scientist, he has written fourteen books and has consulted for the last four US Presidents. His research program, the Saguaro Seminar, is dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America. Visit RobertDPutnam.com.
Top customer reviews
Putnam examines the family, the community, the school and the support network. He finds unlimited proof that in every case. The upper classes are moving forward with ease, while the lower classes and the poor are trapped in a world of violence, debt, and lack of resources. Even their social networks lack the kinds of weak ties that allow rich kids’ parents to make a phone call for them.
There is all kinds of irony. The principle of scarcity means the more uncertain parents are about income, jobs, and housing, the less attention they can pay to their children. Despite being around more, the stress level and the frustration level mean less parental guidance, more violence and abuse, and of course that violence, being the norm, is carried on by the children. Their experience of life is summed up as “Love gets you hurt; trust gets you killed”. Survival means keeping to yourself. Don’t get involved in anyone else’s business. This is the exact opposite of the 20th century, when neighbors kept watch, and everyone chipped in to help. Today, no good deed goes unpunished is the philosophical backstop of most Americans.
Families no longer provide the boost they did to young minds. Working and poor classes have fewer dinners together, where events and issues get aired. Their children hear far fewer words, and spend less time in after school (or any) activities. While rich kids get more face time, poor kids get more screen time. Only 23% of lower class children start school already knowing the alphabet, vs 77% of the better educated classes. This chasm was not a result of a hippie revolution in the 60s. Family breakdown is a result of joblessness and lower expectations beginning in the 80s. Today, the poor and the working poor get married less often. They start families every time they start a new relationship, devoting less time to their children in total. Teen pregnancies are down significantly, but once out in the world, additional out of wedlock children are the norm.
In school, socio-economic status has become more important than test scores in determining who graduates from college. The numbers are stark. Poorer kids participate in fewer after school activities, often because of pay to play, which their parents can’t afford. Marching band is totally out of the question unless you come from wealth. Equal access in school has become quaint history. Lower class parents, having little or no experience with these activities, don’t push their kids into them like soccer moms do. And studies show gigantic gains in income, networks and long term health for those who do participate. Informal mentoring doesn’t exist for the poor kids; their parents have no support network to consult. Disengagement and retreat to social isolation affects the lower classes disproportionately. And disengagement is what the internet society is all about. The book is filled with dozens of ugly charts that all decline or point downward.
The result is a totally different America, dealing with unnecessary poverty, childhood poverty, additional taxpayer burden, lost competitiveness, lost earnings, lower consumer spending, lower growth, and of course, the dissolution of social cohesion. And near zero economic mobility for most. We are becoming two countries in the style of the kingdoms of old. The classes don’t meet, mix, or trade, despite being just on the other side of the interstate highway.
Putnam points to himself, revealing he could not imagine what life is like for the lower classes, because his generation was mobile and escaped them. Anyone reading this book will also likely be from the more successful class and will similarly have zero experience with the mean world of “the 99%”. It makes for a gripping, shocking, appalling read. There is too much to say about this important book. Read it and it will change you.
PS. I have just posted a review of The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality. It answers the questions about how all this could have happened here. It provides the provenance for Putnam's evidence.They make a complete pairing of the story.
The book expands on this insight with stories and statistics that flesh out the dimensions of the problem of income inequality. The stories come from communities across the U.S. so you get a sense of the representativeness of the observations. The book is entertaining and informative, and it feeds empathy for people most of us seldom intersect with. And the book ends with practical proposals based on general characteristics seen in the stories and Statistics. For example, go to your local school district and advocate for the removal of fees for students to participate in extra-curricular activities.
The book is weaker on providing solutions, and on making those solutions vivid to most readers. The book does outline some policy solutions to enhance opportunities for persons growing up in low-income families, including: income transfers for low-income families, parenting improvement programs, preschool, and school improvements. But the book spends relatively little time on outlining how policy solutions might address the overall structure of opportunities in the American economy. In other words, the book is more concerned with improving the quality of the poor’s labor supply, rather than addressing labor demand: the number of good jobs available to all Americans including the poor. A more comprehensive anti-poverty strategy for helping all our kids should include both labor supply and labor demand approaches.
In addition, the book’s policy solutions are discussed in the usual policy wonk fashion, that is with an emphasis on outlining the program features, without any accompanying vivid illustrations of these policy solutions with specific individuals. For example, when discussing preschool, the book could have chosen to present individual stories of how a particular preschool had changed some student’s life. I suspect the book’s policy wonk approach in presenting solutions makes the proposed solutions less memorable for many readers, and perhaps less persuasive. Readers may be convinced that the problems are real, but perhaps they will not be so convinced by the solutions.
However, in a society that seems to become more divided over time, “Our Kids” will help many readers empathize with the children of the underclass, and better understand the challenges they face in growing up and succeeding. This increased empathy may help motivate some readers to support finding better solutions to improve opportunities for all of “Our Kids”.