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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)
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.
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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.
Returning soldiers from WWII took advantage of the GI Bill and found employment in a growing economy. Mom stayed home, dad went to work, and the "Leave it to Beaver" world pretty much became a reality for the majority of baby boomers who found an abundance of supportive adults and readily available activities in their communities. At mid-century the village was willing and able to raise up every child. The community, school, neighborhood, and parent network never failed to ensure my parents had advanced knowledge of any misdeed I committed long before I arrived home. It was similarly equipped to provide recognition and encouragement when I did something positive. This kind of community vision, commitment and cohesion is what we now need to start working to recreate. As a society, we have changed in some very fundamental ways, but none of those changes individually or collectively can or should keep us from recreating and sustaining a supportive community for our children.
I grew up in a family and community that took an active interest in ensuring I would grow up into a responsible adult. I understood that if I studied and worked hard, scholarships and opportunities would be the ultimate reward for my effort. As a parent and teacher I passed this formula for success on to my children and students. "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis" was a reality check for me. I now realize the formula for success that worked well for me now works for a smaller and smaller percentage of kids in our society. Single parent families, families with both parents working, grandparents raising their grand children, pay to play extracurricular opportunities, drug addiction, incarceration, economic segregation, and disparity of opportunity/learning environment in schools have become the new normal. Robert Putnam has done our society a big favor by clearly establishing that "our kids" are facing some pretty tough challenges. More importantly, he has started what needs to be a continuing discussion and even has some suggestions on where we can start to build solutions to the challenges "our kids" face.