Review – Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Robert Putnam)

Putnam uses interviews with American children and adults, contrasting the generation who left high school in 1959 (when, he says, “social class was not a major constraint on opportunity”) with the current situation in which, according to Putnam, “rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping stones to upward mobility” and creating “incipient class apartheid”.

The “deep, throbbing, ominous bass line” to this story is widening inequality: “the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families”, caused by the breakdown of manufacturing and the growth of precarious work, in contrast to “the expanding resources available to upper-class parents”; leading to a decline in social mobility which the author thinks will take another “plunge in the years ahead”.

Putnam says the problems that put lower-class children at a disadvantage – dangerous neighbourhoods, drug abuse, and family breakdown – are caused by (as well as contributing to) economic stress, which makes parents and children “less able to solve problems, cope with adversity, and organize their lives”.

But Putnam is clear that he sees the problem as being one of inequality rather than poverty. He talks of “the birth of a new upper class”, who “have more money and time to invest in their kids”: people able to assert their children’s interests in schools, pay for extra-curricular activities, private schools (or houses in sought-after catchment areas) and unpaid internships, to develop the “soft skills that appeal to college admissions officers and that will impress future employers”. He also points to the power of knowledge and networks, in contrast to “disadvantaged kids…baffled about school practices…colleges, financial affairs, occupational opportunities and even programs…specifically designed to assist kids like them”.

Putnam says this situation is a huge waste of human potential, which threatens “our economy, our democracy and our values”  and urges urgent action, of which he says “sustained economic revival for low-paid workers would be as close to a magic bullet as I can imagine”. He also suggests remedial measures such as increased social security payments, high-quality affordable childcare and publicly-subsidized mixed-income housing. He recognises that this would be expensive, but likens the issue to climate change, saying the cost of action is dwarfed by the social and financial disaster likely to result from inaction.

Duncan Exley, Director, the Equality Trust