Our Kids: Facing Crisis Without Imagination

by

If there was a phrase that captured the state of many children and families in post-war middle America, it would probably be, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” If there was a phrase to capture the state of many children and families today, it would be “We were poor, and we could never forget it.” Robert Putnam, in his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, chronicles the changes in America’s culture and economy since the mid-20th century. Putnam seeks to show through vivid ethnography and weighty social science data the ways that “our kids” — the children that are the substance of our families’ hopes and nation’s future —are facing a bleaker world today than their parents. The grim statistics for out-of-wedlock childbirth, educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, divorce, family instability, and economic immobility are growing ever worse for America’s poor and working-class children. Putnam sadly documents how invisible their austere prospects are to the soaring children of privilege.

Putnam begins his story in his own hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950s during his own coming of age. There the children of construction workers and secretaries and laborers and lawyers and doctors mixed unselfconsciously in their neighborhoods, churches, and extracurricular activities. Class contrasts in culture—and crucially for Putnam, in social mobility—were muted or nonexistent in that era. Nonetheless, these were not halcyon days for everyone in Port Clinton. Many women who desired professional or educational advancement were stymied by bias and the prevailing social norms of the period. For the black children of Port Clinton, Ohio was an oasis of opportunity compared to a hellish American South in the dying gasps of Jim Crow. Yet they remarked to Putnam how “Your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now.”

Putnam’s book has caused a stir because it obliterates popular, rosy stories about individual opportunity and social mobility for all of America’s children. Our Kids investigates the cultural and economic roots of family dissolution and diminished economic prospects for America’s poor and working class families. Putnam gives little credit to Charles Murray’s seminal work Coming Apart, which detailed the divergence in outcomes amongst the white upper class and lower class in America. Murray told a tale of two cities, upper class “Belmont” and working class “Fishtown” and how they fared over the decades. He argues for cultural explanations of recent class divergences. Putnam does reference a controversial 1968 report from Daniel Patrick Moynihan entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action as a proverbial canary in the coal mine. The crisis of social immobility that hit the black community earliest and hardest would hit poor white families a few years later. The causes of this breakdown are numerous and entangled: sex and marriage were delinked with the advent of birth control, the sexual revolution transformed gender and marital norms, women joined the work force like never before, young unskilled male workers faced diminished economic security, and our cultural pendulum swung swiftly towards individualist self-fulfillment in all spheres of life.

Putnam stakes most of his arguments upon the economic aspects of the breakdown: material security, income, and possessions and services that poorer families cannot afford. Our Kids is divided into chapters on families, parenting, schooling, and community – with each chapter following generations of parents and children from communities across the United States, from Atlanta, GA to Bend, OR to Philadelphia, PA. The greatest gift of the book is the dramatic storytelling of the families that Putnam’s team interviewed across the United States. All of the tragedy and beauty of life is on display in these stories of America’s soaring and struggling kids.

Much has already been written about Putnam’s book and the debate it has sparked between cultural and material explanations of the class gap. I recommend Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for one of her many observations that “poor people, whatever their material circumstances might compel them to do, don’t seem to lack a moral compass.” Ross Douthat in the New York Times also contributed to this debate between cultural and material explanations that, “in a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.” Both are correct. The first step to resolving our current dilemma is to recognize how cultural and material inequalities reinforce one another, and understand how to better measure and understand these inequalities.

What is most impoverished about this debate are the statistics we use to describe the problem facing us. While Putnam is a brilliant social science researcher, he fails to see the forest for the trees; or specifically, the vast forest beyond the trees he is able to measure. What does a high school diploma mean if it’s acquired from a place like Santa Ana High School that Putnam documents as a factory of misery and violence? No learning occurs there, and jaded teachers act more like sleepy prison wardens than educators. What does it mean to chide a young working class couple into delaying childbearing and marriage until they achieve an impossible upper-class standard of financial stability? What does it mean to have a higher income if you still can’t afford to live in neighborhoods that are not vortexes of crime or self-destruction? What if a single income family cannot afford access to a real education, and a dual income does not allow enough time or energy away from work to be a good parent?

There are interesting debates to be had about the numbers. Cost inflation in American weddings, higher education, and health care is troubling and fascinating. These changes can have large impacts on the poor. Yet it is important to understand the magnitude of what we can measure versus what we cannot. The vast majority of our prosperity cannot be measured—and likewise, the measure of the poverty and despair that afflicts America’s most vulnerable is only seen through a glass, darkly.

Consider a letter written by Florissant, Missouri native Brian Kaller to The American Conservative in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, describing the community’s decades-long slide into fear:

Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few. Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world. They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police. Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief. Guns were unknown except for hunting in season. Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life for themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers. People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.

I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago. Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.

Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors. Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs. Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.

Low incomes carry a social stigma, yet traditional means of saving money or being more self-sufficient are often socially discouraged or even legally prohibited. Many Americans feel their main emotional connections to and through electronic media, and they are the most heavily medicated people in history. Perhaps these things seem irrelevant to police vs. rioters in Ferguson, but that’s the point. When something like this happens, the left and right argue about how to change institutions’ top-down policies toward handling people, not to give people less cause to be handled.

This weak social infrastructure makes most Americans highly vulnerable to crime, and they know it. In working-class neighborhoods like Ferguson, neighbors look with dread at the violence and social breakdown of places like East St. Louis, and fear it coming to where they live. Liberal commentators often dismiss such fears as simple racism, and sometimes that plays a role. I know many people, however—black and white—who reach across color lines and who still fear violent gangs.

Fear is not counted into GDP – though it might as well be an economic boon, considering we now employ twice as many security guards than we did in 1980 (over one million). If we all had to hire private security guards to guard against the depredations of our neighbors, we could end unemployment as we know it. In that dystopia, our unemployment rate would not be an appropriate measure of the “health of our economy.”

Putnam identifies countless “scissor graphs” that document how the children of working class and upper middle class have come apart over the quality and attentiveness of their parenting, their educational attainment, extracurricular opportunities, political engagement, religiosity, and more. A tragic picture is painted by the numbers, and sadly, it will only worsen in the near future— all of the data that we have is a lagging indicator of the present. The challenges are real and the disorder and trauma in the lives of many poor families will haunt America’s rising generation of children.

Ultimately, Putnam offers a host of public policy solutions to help ameliorate the problems he describes, with a relative emphasis on income inequality. Most of these recommendations are what you would expect from the safety of the political mainstream (safe sex! more education!), save for the unexpected and welcomed stance against the mass incarceration that has devastated so many communities in the United States. Yet ultimately I found myself disappointed with Our Kids – I found myself full of passion for the stories that Putnam profiled, but disappointed that Putnam seemed to lack both self-awareness and imagination in his prescriptions. For example, he writes:

Advice as simple as “read to your children every day” can be valuable, but even more powerful is professional “coaching” of poor parents.

He goes on to mention professional services that help troubled families coping with health problems, childrearing, stress, and other family issues. I am fully in support of communities supporting their families, and reinvigorating the collective sense of responsibility embodied by thinking America’s children as “our kids” again. But it seems absurd to me that the problem here is poor parents’ lack of professional coaching; the problem is the world in which an overburdened parent has to be coached in order to navigate their child through it successfully. Putnam should hone in on what exactly fragments vulnerable families in the absence of this professional attention. In a world where thieves are breaking into houses and victimizing families, recommending that families be provided with full service security consultants is out of touch. If Putnam were to focus on the levers of fragmentation – the actual material and cultural phenomena that wreak havoc in poor families – his analysis would be much stronger.

For example, what if the problem is not a dearth of publicly subsidized mixed development housing? Instead, what if the problem is that we have made a preferential option for the poor nearly illegal and impossible to deliver in the most important spheres of family life, like housing and health and education? Putnam’s recommendations are generally not controversial – and that is an indicator that they are unlikely to upset the status quo.

Many of the wounds upon the poor are self-inflicted, but the tools for their self-destruction are fashioned and laid in hand by the wealthy and powerful. We manufacture poverty by normalizing irresponsible and excessive economic consumption. We manufacture crime by criminalizing the poor and nonviolent and throwing our system’s debtors in prison. We manufacture fear by failing to protect the poor from crime. We manufacture the unskilled by creating innumerable occupational licensing requirements and debilitating educational monopolies that guard the gates to opportunity. We manufacture the homeless by zoning for parking and pretty views over people. We manufacture addicts by marketing alcohol and drugs as a form of self-liberation and selling the “harmless” distractions of entertainment and gambling. We manufacture atomized individuals by eviscerating public spaces, parks, and community extracurricular activities that are open to all without charge. This modern liberation has set so many adrift like small ships into a void—our kids have fewer duties and obligations than ever, and more liberties to pursue their self-destruction. Our nation’s leadership seems oblivious that a problem even exists.

What ails our poor families today is less about what we fail to do for them, compared to the things we have done to them. Putnam’s work is exhaustive, but it fails to imagine an alternative future where we challenge the toxic status quo that enjoys popular support and numerous government mandates. We cannot magically restore the post-war era’s class solidarity, and should not pretend that we can reset the policy choices we have made since then – but we also must not forget that, in a simpler and less prosperous time, our kids were free.

Isaiah Berg

Isaiah Berg is a United States Marine Corps infantry officer with the 1st Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. He hails from a family farm in Starkweather, North Dakota, and is a graduate of Dartmouth College.