Review by Stephen Marche. Fifteen years after publishing Bowling Alone, his seminal book about the fraying of American communities, Robert Putnam takes on the fraying of the American Dream.
In a country racked by seemingly insurmountable political divisions, by deeper red states and darker blue states, equality of opportunity is the one thing that virtually everybody agrees on. Ninety-five percent of Americans believe that “everyone in America should have equal opportunity to get ahead.” The huge and widening gap between the rich and the poor – and the discrepancy between their chances in life – is not a development that anyone, from the Koch brothers to Ralph Nader, desired. Nonetheless, there have been two main responses to the widening gap between rich and the poor: pretending that it doesn’t exist from the Right, and lamenting its inevitability from the Left.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, $28), by Robert Putnam – whose masterpiece, Bowling Alone, showed how modern Americans, separated from tight-knit communities, have become isolated and less socially connected – lands squarely in the center of this mess to reframe the debates. Economic immobility is not inevitable, argues Putham. Rather, America is choosing to become a Third World county with a First World country nestled inside it.
Putnam’s childhood home of Port Clinton, Ohio, is the lens of Our Kids. In the 1960s, Port Clinton was a mixed economy with a manufacturing base and a middle class building decent lives from the proceeds of that base. Today it’s a commuter town, a refuge for the wealthier professionals from Cleveland. “The story of Port Clinton over the last half century – like the history of America over these decades,” Putnam writes – “is not simple about the collapse of the working class, because the same years have witnessed the birth of a new upper class.” The old working class is literally and figuratively pushed to the margins of town.
We often read the statistics in Our Kids piece-meal and sporadically, but put together they are devastating: The rich live in better houses. They have more stuff. They are more secure. The rich live and marry among the rich; the poor live and marry among the poor, creating a county of gated communities surrounded by slums. And yet, the most vital and devastating insight of Our Kids has nothing to do with wealth and material differences. What causes children to rise and fall, according to Putnam, is the most attractive aspect of American lives; the impetus to give your kids every advantage.
All the stuff rich parents spend money on – the SAT classes, the music lessons, the extracurricular sports – they all pay off. The new upper class is far from an aristocracy; it’s a technocracy. And the first job of the new technocratic class is to ensure that their children have a place in the competitive world they have inherited. Their lives are as determined as the poor’s. The irony of the book is contained in its title: The love for “our kids” is driving the destruction of the collective possibilities of other people’s kids. And other people’s kids, no matter what Obama says, are no longer “our kids.”
The problem that Putnam doesn’t face – here or in Bowling Alone – is the underlying reason why Americans have retreated from their sense of shared purpose. Possible solutions to income inequality are not particularly hard to find: expansion of the earned-income tax credit, increased access to early-childhood education, reduction of prison sentences for nonviolent crimes. Ideas are not lacking. What’s lacking is political and social will. America’s industrial dominance in the 20th century was the direct result of the High School movement. “The essence of that reform was a willingness of better-off Americans to pay for schools that would mainly benefit other people’s kids.”
Putnam can explain how the High School movement worked; he can even explain how the collective spirit behind it collapsed. His explanations are incredibly useful, essential reading. But he can’t explain why Americans don’t care about one another’s children anymore. And that’s the real question, isn’t it.
Esquire magazine, April 2015.