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As American social scientists go, few are more influential than Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor and author of the 2001 mega best seller Bowling Alone. When Putnam recently turned his attention to U.S. income inequality and children (in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis), mortals like me who care about children felt a surge of hope. Perhaps Putnam—not heretofore known as an expert on childhood in the U.S.—could direct greater attention to American children in need. Putnam’s book chronicles how a large number of U.S. children have been left behind in today’s gilded age. He builds his argument on data as well as close-in profiles showing how today’s impoverished families struggle to subsist without real opportunity to achieve the American dream.
I hoped that Putnam’s book would raise the consciousness of elite policymakers. In my imagination, here was Putnam, a modern version of the trio of ghosts who reformed rich, old Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. You’ve seen dramatizations of Dickens’s famed story: three apparitions escort Scrooge on visits to the past, present, and future, jolting him into changing his greedy ways and extending his resources more fairly to Tiny Tim’s struggling family, the Cratchits.
Just like A Christmas Carol, Putnam’s book also commences with a visit to the past, in this case, Putnam’s past in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. In Putnam’s growing years, Port Clinton had an appreciable degree of integration between young haves and young have-nots. They crossed paths in schools and on teams and knew each other’s families. This meant that ambitious poor kids in the community had exposure to the values and pathways that led to opportunities, including attending college and leading middle-class lives.
But according to Putnam’s account of present-day Port Clinton, all traces of this vital and beneficial class integration have vanished. As the poor grew poorer and the rich richer in this part of Ohio, the community became strictly bifurcated, with neighborhoods of million-dollar lakefront homes set apart from vaster tracts of dilapidated houses and trailer parks. Poor kids now live (to quote Putnam) “troubled, isolated, hopeless lives” and lack any chance of getting ahead. Even participating in sports is now biased toward the well to do, who can afford to pay added on fees. The lucky children on the right side of the tracks are now pushed, prodded, and supported incessantly to achieve a full measure of self-actualization. Although Port Clinton is just one town, a similar growing class divide—Putnam tells us—has led to a nationwide epidemic of apartness that hurts poor kids.
To help readers imagine what the future could be like, Putnam stipples his book with statistical graphs that plot the past and suggest continuing trends. The graphs contain one line for the posh and a separate line for the poor. These lines show a pattern of consistent, unrelenting divergence between America’s kids in everything from parental income (many poor kids rely on a single mother’s meager earnings) to educational supports (which poor kids often miss out on).
As of this writing, Our Kids is still being outsold by Bowling Alone, Putnam’s much earlier book, so we can reasonably assume that Putnam’s depiction of American kids’ past, present, and future realities has failed to have the impact on today’s policymakers that Dicken’s ghostly trio had on Scrooge. There has been no stampede by policy wonks clamoring for increased fairness and community. This is true despite the fact that the argument of Putnam’s book is clear and his vignettes are empathy inviting.
If I were to suggest a partial reason for Putnam’s not having reformed the elite, it would be this: the book makes too weak a case that the elite themselves are hurt by income inequality and segregation. It makes a weaker case, for example, than Annette Lareau made in her 2003 book Unequal Childhoods, in which she argued that there are strengths inherent in growing up affluent and different strengths inherent in growing up working class or poor. Although affluent kids may be good at self-actualizing, kids in the working class are prepared by their upbringing to work and play well with others and respect authority. When Putnam was a Port Clinton kid, it is likely that some of the social intelligence of his less affluent friends was available to him, as a social model of fair give-and-take, in ways no longer common because of the chasm separating rich and poor.
Putnam’s bias towards salutatory middle-class values creeps in when he cites a disadvantage that poor kids are presumed to have relative to the affluent. He is a proponent of “word gap” theory, the idea that poor kids are linguistically deprived when measured by middle-class language-learning norms. (A recent critique of word gap theory by experts in child language can be found in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 66–86, 2015.) Putnam overlooks the degree to which language socialization is a process situated in the values and ways of particular social groups; language learning in one social group is not necessarily absolutely superior to another.
Harvard University, where Putnam teaches, has produced plenty of self-actualized, wordy graduates—but isn’t it also advantageous when the young learn to recognize that in a resilient community, social intelligence and the humility to work well with others are parallel virtues to be prized? It took three ghosts for the isolated miser Scrooge to learn generosity. It may take more than one book for policy elites to appreciate that Tiny Tim, like today’s American kids left behind, had assets (not just deficits) that are needed by us all, every one.