In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert D. Putnam aspires to make the narrowing of the opportunity gap a political task, something that is urgent, broadly worthwhile, and achievable. He popularizes a great deal of research with the intent of making the general reader/citizen/voter motivated to take on what is both a moral and practical problem.
To do this, he and his research colleagues interview a range of people in a broad array of American locations, generating qualitative data on family structure, income, neighborhood, educational ambition and attainment, social supports, and affiliation. He prefaces all of this contemporary data with a nostalgic look back at his childhood town, where, he claims, the opportunities available for an individual to participate in community life and to be upwardly mobile were not dependent on the social class of his or her parents. His reminiscing allows him to create a working definition for the “American Dream,” which includes a “fair shot” at creating a life that is upwardly mobile. Parents in this 1950s idyll could be reasonably assured, no matter their station, that their children would be able to build a lifestyle that rivaled or surpassed their own.
He contrasts this historical context (for which he uses not just his warm memories but interview data with classmates from that era) with the modern experiences of affluent and poor families in different areas around the country. These interviews suggest that today, the social class in which a person is born constrains his or her possibilities from the outset.
And with that, Putnam points to some very specific characteristics of modern life that are different for low-income and more affluent children: parenting styles and family supports, educational communities (and opportunities within those communities), and neighborhood institutions, and relationships. His political project involves getting ordinary Americans to promote reform in each of those areas, including supporting tax reform to benefit low-income parents, especially those who are unmarried or who aren’t in the work force; funding quality early childhood education; building mixed-income housing; advocating for public ownership of school activity fees; and investing in neighborhood redevelopment and organizations.
I am of two minds about this book. On the one hand, HOORAY for Putnam for pushing us to think about inequality in a concrete way. It is so strategic to have this kind of conversation starting just as a new election cycle begins. And the idea of writing a book that is aimed at a general rather than an academic audience helps propel Putnam’s idea that grappling with inequality is everybody’s responsibility in a democratic society.
But on the other hand, I had issues with his analysis all the way through, beginning with his umbrella discussion of “the good old days.” It seems as if what he really wants to talk about is not “equality of opportunity,” but rather access to the middle class. His portrait of his small town in the 1950s as providing a level playing field tumbles when you consider the civil rights barriers and glass ceilings and structural barriers to opportunity that existed for some people at that point in time. It may have been –and importantly so – that there were more opportunities for everyone to be a functioning member of the middle class in that place and at that point, but that is not the same as having equal opportunities for each person to do whatever s/he wants to do.
And with that, if what he’s really talking about is access to the middle class, then there are large structural and economic barriers TODAY that need to be made explicit. Putnam makes an offhand comment in his “Conceptual Note” section (p.44) that he thinks of “upper class” homes as families where both parents have graduated from college. But he also says that he doesn’t want to address the “inconsistencies” of this classification, such as the fact that someone can be a “well-educated but poorly paid librarian.”
But that IS a modern issue of opportunity, isn’t it? Many seemingly middle class jobs (librarian, teacher, social worker….) require significant higher education but don’t offer easy entrance or sustained access to a middle class lifestyle. Thinking about the economic forces that are making that so is part of the political work of addressing inequality. We need to get clear about who has real power in our society and what kinds of laws and systems got them there. My guess is that the “American Dream” is not as clearly in the reach of all of the “rich” people he interviews for this book as he suggests.
Putnam is an interesting guy. You can read about the research he did for this book here – the bibliography is fantastic! There are also all sorts of interesting related papers and links in his Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard.