American Dream, American Nightmare

The “American Dream” may be difficult to define, but it rests on well-recognized and shared assumptions: that everyone is created equal (per the Declaration of Independence), that freedom allows for personal choice, that opportunity should be available to all, that hard work and playing fair will result in good outcomes, and that our children’s lives will be better than our own. Political campaigns are often built around a pledge to support the American Dream. Threats to it are never taken lightly. our-kids

Robert D. Putnam, a famous Harvard professor of public policy who made the leap to public intellectual, was well aware of this when he chose the title of his latest book: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. This is no narrow academic study. Grounded in a rich array of quantitative and qualitative data, it is a carefully crafted account of inequality of wealth and inequality of opportunity. The book uses numbers, graphs, charts and a compendium of stories to explain how the communities, opportunities, and promise of Putman’s youth are no longer possible for most Americans. Putnam emphasizes that in his childhood, the community cared about all children. Today, he claims, we only seem to care about our own.

His co-researcher, Jennifer M. Silva, is a scholar and author herself. She spent years interviewing subjects for this book, capturing their voices and their thoughts. Our Kids analyzes two Americas and a portends a crisis. Putnam believes inequality will shatter the American Dream unless we make significant changes to bring the less fortunate closer to those that have more. His mission is to make readers aware of how the “other half” lives and to think through the consequences of inequality on the generations to come.

Many scholars already write about American inequality. In one sense, much of the book covers well-trod ground. Putnam, though, brings special talents to the task. He communicates exceptionally well, has the resources to amass a mountain of research, and argues from a position of great authority. He is especially effective using case studies to illustrate the distinctions between those that have and those that do not.

For example, he contrasts the lives two young African-American men living in the greater Atlanta area. Elijah’s family is broken and inconsistent in its attention and care. He has a temper, a record, and a poor school history. His life is curtailed by the responsibility of tending for his baby step brothers. His anger is a constant threat. He makes money at a grocery store and his future is not in the least promising. On the other hand, Desmond’s parents are wealthier and his family is stable. He is supported, challenged, and grows up with piano lessons, church and soccer. Desmond loves his parents and after graduating from college, has a position at the Center for Disease Control. His future is very promising. Putnam emphasizes the many degrees of differences in opportunity, mobility, support, and social capital between the two. The deck was stacked against Elijah and there are terribly few interventions or societal structures to help. This was not the case fifty years ago, Putnam stresses.

Putnam’s childhood home, Port Clinton, Ohio, functions as an idealized contrast to current conditions. Ohio in the 1940s and 1950s was far from perfect. Putnam acknowledges many shortcomings, including racism, oppression, and sexism. But he also recounts friends, family, and social networks that provided caring, love, time, help and opportunity. In the author’s youth – even accounting for the racism of the times – a young man like Elijah would probably have encountered stronger supports and structures. Social pressures might have kept his family situation more coherent. He might have found mentors from the town and neighborhood. One of Putnam’s recurring themes is the power of networks and social capital – and the powerful negative consequences of not having them.

Children live through inequality and as they grow up, their life paths show the inequities of their childhood. College attending parents get more involved in their children’s schools. They provide tutors and nannies and opportunities. They invest in coaches, trips, internships and extra-curricular activities. They move to live in stronger public school catchments. Their children attend and graduate from college. The children of college educated parents live in a very different world from those who parents possess a high school degree (or less). These parent are more likely to be unmarried. Their families are complicated, less supportive, and stability is often elusive. It is not just fewer material possessions. These children attend less successful schools, receive less support at home and in the community, are often starved for encouragement.  These kids are less likely to be in sports or extracurricular activities. They are less likely to attend church. Their networks are smaller and are based mostly on family and local geography. College is less likely and their career options are more curtailed.

The big picture result, Putnam argues, is that worlds of the college educated and the poor rarely interact. They do not know each other and are growing ever further apart. Putnam’s analysis tends to categorize American society into three large groupings: those that have a high school diploma or some high school; those with some college; and those with a further education. He makes clear that education is the critical divider in our country. It signals where people live, how they live, who they marry (if they marry), how they work and how they raise their children. Accordingly, education and the path to college plays an extremely important role in analysis of inequality. Nothing is a clearer marker between those that have and those that don’t than a college degree.

Putnam sees little evidence that social mobility on large-scale is viable without some major changes. It is impossible to tell today if his prognostication is completely accurate. Social and economic mobility is measured in decades. Nevertheless, Putnam makes a very compelling case.

Missing from Putnam’s analysis are the economic, political and cultural shifts that led to rising inequality. He acknowledges that rising inequality has been facilitated by political and policy choices. However, he is explicit that there are no upper class villains in Our Kids. That means that we all have a hand in determining how we want to address the issue in the future. Social scientists track inequality using a method called the Gini index. The US stands out as extreme among western democracies. Inequality was low after WWII until 1968 and it has been increasing ever since.

The absence of a hard look at causality weakens Putman’s recommendations. He proposes a battery of policy and political reforms: parental leave policy, child care programs, more preschool, parity in school funding, better neighborhood schools, vocational programs in the high schools, more extracurricular activities in the high schools, expanded earned income tax credit, and greater support to community colleges. These are all staples of the welfare system one would find in a European democracy. Putnam argues for an investment in poor kids. He argues that it is cheaper over the long-term, helps democracy and political stability, and is the moral right thing to do.

Putnam’s book has a special import for the world of higher education. What we deliver – a college education and a credential – more than any other factor is the determinant between a middle class lifestyle (or better) or a struggling life of poverty. This is why college completion has attracted the attention of so many. Students, parents, politicians, and analysts recognize the power of a college education. The focus on college is how many want to address issues of inequality.

Our Kids is a well-written and memorable wake-up call. It effectively raises awareness, provokes questions and reflection, and challenges us to think of our collective responsibility to children. By using the past as a backdrop, is charts and suggests a very troubling future. Unfortunately, it falls short in presenting next steps to galvanize a collective worry into effective action.

David Potash

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