Our kids The American Dream in crisis

Robert D. Putnam

Book - 2015

"A groundbreaking examination of the growing inequality gap from the bestselling author of Bowling Alone: why fewer Americans today have the opportunity for upward mobility. It's the American dream: get a good education, work hard, buy a house, and achieve prosperity and success. This is the America we believe in--a nation of opportunity, constrained only by ability and effort. But during the last twenty-five years we have seen a disturbing "opportunity gap" emerge. Americans... have always believed in equality of opportunity, the idea that all kids, regardless of their family background, should have a decent chance to improve their lot in life. Now, this central tenet of the American dream seems no longer true or at the least, much less true than it was. Robert Putnam--about whom The Economist said, "his scholarship is wide-ranging, his intelligence luminous, his tone modest, his prose unpretentious and frequently funny"--offers a personal but also authoritative look at this new American crisis. Putnam begins with his high school class of 1959 in Port Clinton, Ohio. By and large the vast majority of those students--"our kids"--went on to lives better than those of their parents. But their children and grandchildren have had harder lives amid diminishing prospects. Putnam tells the tale of lessening opportunity through poignant life stories of rich and poor kids from cities and suburbs across the country, drawing on a formidable body of research done especially for this book. Our Kids is a rare combination of individual testimony and rigorous evidence. Putnam provides a disturbing account of the American dream that should initiate a deep examination of the future of our country"--

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New York : Simon & Schuster 2015.
Physical Description
386 pages
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Robert D. Putnam (-)
Review by Choice Review

Putnam (Harvard Univ.) is the author of Bowling Alone (CH, Dec'00, 38-2454). In his latest book, he examines class structure and inequality. Using classmates from his own high school class of 1959, Putnam examines the "opportunity gap," upward mobility, and the American dream of working hard to gain income and social status. He finds that for many poor and uneducated Americans, this is likely a myth. He also finds that though race is a significant factor in life outcomes, class-based characteristics have more bearing on outcomes for children. His recommendations echo those of other scholars: improving quality and access to public education and providing a living wage as long-term strategies. Unlike other more academic writers, he weaves storytelling with scholarly research and policy implications. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. --Leslie T Grover, Southern University and A&M College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission. Review by New York Times Review

ROBERT D. PUTNAM is technically a Harvard social scientist, but a better description might be poet laureate of civil society. In successive versions of "Bowling Alone" (as a 1995 article and an instant-classic book), Putnam argued, to bipartisan acclaim, that civic life is declining with ominous consequences. Bill Clinton brought him to Camp David. The campaigns of Al Gore and George W. Bush sought his advice. Barack Obama gave him a medal. If rock star status seems improbable for a numbers-crunching academic - well, it is. But by focusing on sports leagues and volunteer work, "Bowling Alone" let liberals highlight social needs without conjuring big government, while conservatives could signal compassion without delving too deeply into racial or class injustice. A catchy title helped. In "Our Kids," Putnam brings his talent for launching a high-level discussion to a timely topic - the state of upward mobility. Widening income gaps, he argues, have brought profound but underappreciated changes to family life, neighborhoods and schools in ways that give big advantages to children at the top and make it ever harder for those below to work their way up. The idea that growing inequality will hurt upward mobility might seem self-evident. But the academic verdict on intergenerational trends is still out, and data on today's children will lag for decades. Likening the problem to climate change, Putnam says we can't wait for perfect clarity but must act now to save the American dream. To make his point, he combines an energetic synthesis of academic studies with contrasting portraits of high-and low-income families. His research is prodigious. His spirit is generous. His judgments are thoughtful and fair. "Our Kids" belongs on the bookshelf of anyone concerned about equal opportunity. What he omits, however - sometimes maddeningly - is a discussion of the political or economic forces driving the changes he laments. You'd never know from "Our Kids" just how radically income inequality has grown; how much influence the wealthy now exercise in politics; and how well they protect their stakes. (We do hear a lot, by contrast, about the importance of family dinners.) To frame inequality, as Putnam largely does, as a product of inadequate empathy and weakened civic institutions is to overlook the extent to which it's also a story about interests and power. Where Putnam succeeds is in describing the diverging life chances of children in rich and poor families. ("Rich" parents finished college; "poor" parents have high school degrees or less.) The point isn't just that rich kids have advantages but that their advantages are large and growing. A majority of rich kids still grow up with two parents. For poor kids that's increasingly rare. Rich kids get almost 50 percent more nurturing time from their parents, when there used to be no class difference. Rich kids have a growing edge in access to good day care. The children of less educated parents "are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise." Rich kids don't just go to better schools. They have a growing edge in access to extracurricular activities - in part because many schools now charge to play sports. Rich families have always outspent the poor on activities like camp, but the spending gap has tripled. Rich and poor kids used to attend church at comparable rates. Now "this class gap, too, is growing." On it goes as Putnam charts class advantages that start in the womb and widen at every stage. He is particularly troubled by the class differences in the prevalence of family meals, citing evidence that family dining promotes good grades and behavior. Education is supposed to help level the playing field. Horace Mann called it the "great equalizer." Now it's closer to the great fortifier - compounding the advantages of class, since the affluent come better prepared and more able to pay. A few decades ago, the gap between rich and poor kids in finishing college was 39 percentage points. It's now 51 percentage points. Even poor kids with high test scores are slightly less likely to get degrees than rich kids with low scores. Putnam rightly calls this "shocking." Putnam more than makes his case; no one can finish "Our Kids" and feel complacent about equal opportunity. Still his perspective is modestly skewed by two tendencies. One is nostalgia. In terms of college access, Putnam says there was "no trace of bias against kids from humbler backgrounds" in 1959 when he graduated from high school in Port Clinton, Ohio. None? "Few of our families were poverty-stricken," he writes, though child poverty was 7.4 percentage points higher nationwide than it is today. Putnam also invites quibbles by choosing families drawn from extremes to illustrate his case, especially among the poor. They include a girl being raised by her sister after their mother, a prostitute, died, possibly of AIDS; a homeless teenager with nine half-siblings and a father in prison; and a boy raised in the New Orleans projects who committed arson at 13 and who boasts, "I just love beating up somebody." The rich kids mostly have model dads and Tiger Moms. The poor families he profiles lead heartbreaking lives, but for most the troubles seem to date back generations. The recent growth of inequality, which began in the 1970s, would be glimpsed better a few rungs up the ladder, among the besieged working class. Oddly in a book about inequality we never learn how much money any of the families have. Though Putnam is a political scientist, his account is politics-free. He bemoans low turnout among poor voters, but says nothing about new laws that make it harder to vote. He rues the difficulties of a father who earns the minimum wage, with no mention of the opposition to raising it. He criticizes proprietary schools that crank out worthless diplomas, but not the political spending that protects them. You wouldn't know from this account that one party's standard-bearer (Mitt Romney) ran for president while claiming that 47 percent of Americans believe "they are victims," and "that they're entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it." The discussion doesn't need partisan spin; some Democrats protect moneyed interests, too. But it's impossible to understand inequality without understanding the power it gives those at the top to pull up the ladder. Perhaps Putnam's see-nopolitics approach is a wily strategy for reaching the broadest audience. Perhaps it's just who he is. His policy suggestions include expanded tax credits for the poor, greater access to quality day care and more money for community colleges. Does this agenda sound familiar? When President Obama proposed it in January, critics on the right said he was waging "class warfare." Toward the end of "Our Kids," Putnam offers a brave confession: Before starting the project, he didn't understand how hard it had gotten for poor kids to get ahead. He had risen from modest means. Therefore, he writes, "I assumed, so could kids from modest backgrounds today." Now "I know better." It's alarming to think that the class gaps have widened so quickly, even someone as eminent as Putnam lost track. To his credit, he was moved by the people he met - their intelligence, their resilience, their sheer likability. One downside to a society with a meritocratic gloss is that it encourages the winners to think that life is fairer than it is, to overlook the merit in those left behind. That's something to talk about at the next family dinner. JASON DEPARLE, a reporter for The Times and an Emerson fellow at New America, is writing a book about immigration.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [March 8, 2015] Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Putnam (American Grace, 2012) tackles the enormously important issue of income inequality in the U.S. in this powerful blend of social and economic research. He vividly tells the personal stories of several American families that show the vastly different experiences resulting from their disparate incomes. Using his Ohio hometown as a springboard, Putnam revisits the accomplishments of his classmates, who, to varying degrees, all improved upon the economic accomplishments of their parents. This is no longer the case there, however. Traveling from Bend, Oregon, to Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Orange County, California, he focuses on how current income disparity directly influences the family, parenting, schooling, and community circumstances modern children are subjected to nationwide. This is not about lack of love Putnam makes no judgments on good versus bad relationships but rather it is about time, opportunity, and, in cases of extreme poverty, food and health care. Putnam casts a wide net, including Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic families, and he carefully weaves pertinent economic data and analysis into each chapter. Most important, the current physical separation between rich and poor is given careful consideration. Bend is a small community, one teen blithely asserts, and you don't see a whole lot of poverty. Here's hoping that young man reads about what Putnam uncovered in his town.--Mondor, Colleen Copyright 2015 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this ambitious study, Putnam expands his analysis of America's social breakdown from 2001's Bowling Alone to 21st-century upward mobility, though his interpretation seems somewhat muddled by nostalgia for the idea that the 1950s were a paradise of class parity. He states that, though 95% of Americans still endorse "equal opportunity" in principle, increasing ghettoization of neighborhoods by class has yielded a two-tier social system and widening opportunity gap for children that's largely independent of cultural ideology. The gap begins at birth, and may be insurmountable by school age. Extended interviews with people who grew up rich and poor in the author's hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, both in the 1950s and more recently, provide perspective but feel as much positioned to pull at the heartstrings as to serve as data. Though Putnam gives solutions less attention than problems, he recommends expanding the EITC and child tax credit, protecting anti-poverty programs to reduce financial and emotional stress for families, reducing sentencing for non-violent crime to keep two-parent households intact, investing extra money in schools in poor neighborhoods, and killing "pay to play" extracurriculars. Putnam's points about the changes in American society in the last few generations are strong, but his utter dismissal of the independent effects of race and educational level may infuriate more intersectional scholars. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

Putnam, a renowned scientist, leading humanist, and author of numerous books on public policy issues, such as Bowling Alone, makes the case that fewer Americans today have the opportunity for upward mobility compared to those who grew up in the 1950s. Beginning with his own experience in Port Clinton, OH, in the Fifties, the author uses data from publicly available research and interviews. The interviews feature a cross-section of rich and poor young adults and their parents from various communities, urban and suburban; although one wonders about the challenges of rural America. The author makes the point that "All trends reported.are based on nationally represented samples, including all races." Putnam reminds us of our moral obligation to address the opportunity gap and suggests some public policy initiatives to address the problem-steps such as instituting nationwide early childhood education and restoring working-class wages. Jennifer M. Silva, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and author of Coming Up Short, is credited in the methodology section as having provided the interviews. VERDICT The title and subtitle speak to the author's passion and belief that today's family and community support are less readily available to kids from such modest backgrounds than in the past and that Americans need to address this problem for the benefit of all children. Recommended for academic and public library collections. [See Prepub Alert, 9/8/14.]-Karen -Venturella, Union Cty. Coll. Libs, Cranford, NJ © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

A political scientist calls attention to the widening class-based opportunity gap among young people in the United States.Putnam (Public Policy/Harvard Univ.; co-author: American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 2010, etc.) author of the best-selling Bowling Alone (2000), argues that the American dream has faded for poor children in the past five decades. Beginning with the stories of individuals, he compares the opportunities for upward mobility in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, when he was in high school (he graduated in 1959) with the situation today, and he finds tremendous differences. For getting ahead in the world, social class mattered relatively little then, but now it is paramount, and the institutions, both public and private, that helped young people of all backgrounds are no longer serving the disadvantaged well. Putnam expands his view from his hometown to a number of towns across the U.S., looking at how young people in different social classes fare. Using personal stories, statistics and studies, and focusing in turn on families, parenting, schooling and community, the author demonstrates that the class gap in America has been growing. Although there is a fair amount of repetition, occasional sociological jargon and perhaps too much use of illustrative personal stories, Putnam's prose is highly readable, and the figures and tables that dot the text are generally simple and clear. In the final chapter, Putnam discusses what this disparity in opportunity means for the future of our country economically and politically, as well as what it says about our ideals and values. He then tackles the question of what to do about it, offering a number of specific ideas and citing approaches that have had positive results. The best hope is a strong economy that benefits less-educated, low-paid workers. 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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.