Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who became famous for chronicling the demise of American social capital in his groundbreaking 2000 book Bowling Alone, has a new book out reporting on what this unraveling means for the current generation of children.
His Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is very similar to Charles Murray’s 2013 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, which catalogues the social stratification of upper and lower classes during that period. Yet while Murray’s book is a bit more data intensive, Putnam’s book relies more heavily on qualitative interviews describing how poor families, to a large and growing extent, are more likely to engage in unmarried parenting, particularly single motherhood.
Both men chronicled how less-educated families are also more vulnerable to violent crime, drug addiction and gang activity. Both men describe their respective, near-idyllic Midwestern upbringings – Murray in Newton, Iowa and Putnam in Port Clinton, Ohio – small towns where rich and poor lived side-by-side, where social mobility was more accessible. Putnam summarizes sentiment from interviews with many of his classmates that “We were poor monetarily, but didn’t know it,” yet because of rich bonds of social capital “We were rich in community ties but didn’t know it, either.”
Both men, now in their early 70s, retraced their steps and chronicled how both towns have now become economically segregated, driven largely by disparate educational and economic opportunities, which has eroded social capital among the lower-classes, particularly those with a high school education or less. Putnam, who tends to lean more to the left, even though he has collaborated with conservative Rep. Paul Ryan, is more prescriptive in his survey, offering more policy solutions than Murray, a vocal critic of many welfare programs.
Also, Putnam is more explicit in his conversations about race, which Murray was reluctant to do following criticism of his book, The Bell Curve, on genetics and intelligence. Putnam interviews an African-American classmate from his high school senior class who felt ostracized by others in the nearly all-white town and still feels the sting of racism today. “Your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now,” she is quoted.
Yet Putnam also highlights African-American and Hispanic families both from Port Clinton as well as Atlanta and Orange County, California whose parents were able to pull themselves up from working class to professional class and are now raising millennial children with many opportunities. He traces many of the ingredients that enabled their rise, along with contrasting interviews of families with millennial children who today are suffering from substance abuse, unemployment, teen pregnancies and behavioral issues.
He traces the troubles starting even at birth among poor families. While in recent decades the age of first childbirth has gone up for college-educated women, the median age has actually gone down for less-educated women. This is in part due to poorer women being less mindful and less educated about using birth control effectively. The result is poorer, less-educated women are starting to have kids about 10 years before wealthier, better-educated women, and that leaves fewer resources and less life experience for mothers to draw upon. And these younger women are less willing to marry the poorer fathers, who themselves are less interested in remaining in the home.
“Low-income men and women have children while searching for a long-term partner, not after they have found one,” Putnam reports. “The shared desire to have a child usually fails to provide enough of a bond to persist through the trials of raising an infant amidst precarious work, fragile families, and dangerous neighborhoods … Compared to college graduates, high-school-educated men are four times more likely to father children with whom they do not live, and only half as likely to visit those children … Other things being equal, working mothers today spend less time with the kids than stay-at-home moms today, but working mothers today spend as much time with the kids as stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s, because today’s working mothers have cut back on other uses of their time.”
While economics plays a role in the rise of unmarried births, Putnam argues, the broader point is more cultural acceptance of unmarried births. He points out that during the Great Depression, when economic times were even more difficult, families still remained intact or parents delayed birth until marriage.
“Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored,” Putnam says. “Today the role of father has become more voluntary, which means that, as Marica Carlson and Paula England have put it, ‘only the most committed and financially stable men choose to embrace it.’ This important cultural shift matters a good deal for the sorts of families within which poor kids today are raised.”
Putnam shows that as social capital has now deteriorated, poorer families generally have fewer close friends and fewer “weak ties” that help parents and their children navigate through school and work. Compared to wealthier families, poor families’ networks are disproportionately concentrated within their own extended family and perhaps a high school friend or two. He calls lower-class social circles, “redundant,” that is “their friends tend to know the same people they do, so that they lack the ‘friend of a friend’ reach available to upper-class Americans.” He reports that 64% of wealthier kids have some mentoring beyond their extended family, while on the flip side, 62% poor kids do not. This affects kids’ ability to handle difficulty at school or at home, Putnam argues, by making it difficult to navigate through challenges and build resiliency.
“Studies during the past 40 years have consistently shown that, if anything, drug usage and binge drinking are more common among privileged teenagers than among their less affluent peers,” Putnam reports. “What is different, however, are the family and community ‘air bags’ that deploy to minimize the negative consequences of drugs and other misadventures among rich kids.”
As with Murray, Putnam singles out a decline in religious participation among lower classes as a key driver in the decline of social capital. Wealthier families are more likely to attend church services than poorer families.
“Weekly churchgoers are two to three times more likely to volunteer to help the poor and young people than are non-churchgoers, holding other things constant, and are much more likely to contribute financially to those causes,” Putnam says. “This religious edge appears for volunteering and giving through secular organizations, as well as for volunteering and giving through religious organizations. And the crucial ingredient seems not to be theology but rather involvement in a religious congregation.”
Many of the lower-class families he interviews who were able to successfully bounce back from hardship or obtain work or scholarships and educational guidance did so through their religious communities. These anecdotal tales he supplements with academic research.
“Controlling for many other characteristics of the child, her family, and her schooling, a child whose parents attend church regularly is 40 to 50 percent more likely to go on to college than a matched child of non-attenders,” he reports. “Churchgoing kids have better relations with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, are more involved in sports and other extracurricular activities, are less prone to substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, and smoking), risky behavior (like not wearing seat belts), and delinquency (shoplifting, misbehaving in school, and being suspended or expelled).”
Regarding Internet connectivity, Putnam reports that black-white disparities have closed in terms of access to the Web. Yet along the fault lines of economic class, regardless of race and instead more along educational lines, Putnam reports on research from scholars Danah Boyd and Ezter Hargittai. They show that while low-income kids have the same access to the Web as wealthier kids, they tend to use internet for entertainment or recreation, whereas wealthier families tend to use the Web for ways that are mobility-enhancing such as a job search, learning about health, general education or news gathering.
“Even though lower-class kids are coming to have virtually equal physical access to the Internet, they lack the digital savvy to exploit that access in ways that enhance their opportunities,” Putnam writes. “At least at this point in its evolution, the Internet seems more likely to widen the opportunity gap than to close it.”
Putnam describes scientific data showing how poorer children have different brain activity in their prefrontal cortex, the part that handles executive function, which is impaired by through chronic exposure to stress. This shows up in brains as young as ages 3 to 5, he reports, leading to difficulties later in life.
Children born into poor families are generally taught to have greater suspicion of their neighborhoods and are inculcated with the value of obedience instead of self-reliance, Putnam reports. There is also a wide gap in the number of “verbal encouragements” and “verbal discouragements” by class. Among families with professional degrees, children hear roughly 166,000 verbal encouragements per year vs. 26,000 discouragements; working class children hear 62,000 encouragements and 36,000 discouragements; children of welfare recipients hear 26,000 encouragements and 57,000 discouragements. This disparity in what Putnam calls the “hug/spank ratio,” or the “promotive” vs. “preventative” strategies teach poor children that dangers far outnumber opportunities.
Putnam offers a range of policy ideas, including these below:
Putnam calls for a setting aside of “blue state” and “red state” ideology for a “purple” approach to thinking about rising income inequality. He is no Occupy Wall Street rabble rouser, yet with the growing economic segregation he sees his book as a wake up call.
“Perhaps unexpectedly, this is a book without upper-class villains,” he writes. “Virtually none of the upper-middle-class parents of our stories are idle scions of great wealth lounging comfortably on family fortunes. … But most readers of this book do not face the same plight, nor does its author, nor do our own biological kids. Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.”
Putnam cites economist Harry Holzer’s estimates that annual costs of child poverty to the US economy are $500 billion per year, nearly 4 % gross GDP. This figure is compiled through summary of reduced economic output, increased costs of crime and health expenditures. Besides the economic and political arguments for helping poor children, Putnam also adds a moral dimension that transcends both left and right.
“Virtually all religions share a profound commitment to caring for the have-nots,” he admonishes. “We don’t have to believe in perfect equality of opportunity to agree that our religious ideals and our basic moral code demand more equality of opportunity than we have now … in addressing the opportunity gap, we must consider the full spectrum of potential solutions.”
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Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for American Enterprise Institute scholar Edward Conard. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.