Robert Putnam’s New Book Makes Us See the Invisible Dynamics of Widening Inequality

Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is an important book.  It has been criticized a bit by social science reviewers because it doesn’t challenge the power and money behind the politics that have created the problems it describes, but I would guess that Putnam’s purpose is different.  This is a book written to make us see what is invisible to most of us: “Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages (and probably also civic associations, workplaces, and friendship circles) means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility—college going classmates or cousins or middle-class neighbors, who might take a working-class kid from the neighborhood under their wing.” (p. 41) The book is written for a popular—not an academic—audience to illuminate the social science research on which it is based.

While most of us will notice a new stadium or a new convention center or revitalization downtown, we are less likely to see that a neighborhood or community is changing demographically and we are likely to be blind to the social dynamics at work or the meaning of the change until perhaps years later.  Putnam turns our attention directly to growing inequality in the institutions that matter to children: the family, the parents’ marriage and parenting style, the school, the neighborhood.

I confess that my own fascination with Our Kids is my interest in public school inequality and our society’s wrong headed approach to addressing achievement gaps.  After all, Putnam’s book is evidence that the great wave of standardized testing, sanctions for so-called “failing” schools, and privatization of schools cannot possibly address the primary cause of achievement gaps: rapidly widening economic inequality and segregation by family income. Putnam explains, “Our contemporary public debate recognizes this problem but assumes it is largely a ‘schools problem.’ On the contrary we have seen that most of the challenges facing poor kids are not caused by schools.” (p 231)  Schools, according to Putnam’s research, are sites where we can observe inequality but not its primary cause: “In fact, all of the factors that we’ve discussed so far in this book—family structure, parenting, childhood development, peer groups, extracurricular opportunities—have contributed to the widening gap in college graduation rates in recent decades, along with the neighborhood and community influences….” (pp. 188-189)

Four years ago the Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon published two studies that startled people watching trends in public school achievement.  Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  Putnam quotes Reardon’s research and then he explains what it means in the daily lives of families and children.

I describe Reardon’s conclusions again and again in this blog, because I think we all have to pay attention, but nobody—until Putnam published Our Kids last week—has figured out how to help people understand the meaning of these statistics. If we live in a metropolitan area, we may realize demographic changes are happening, assuming we are paying close attention, but we very likely won’t understand exactly what’s changing.  If we return to our hometown, we may notice that things have changed, but we are not likely to think about the magnitude of a change such as a factory’s closing, for example, and the meaning of that plant shutdown for the community’s need to shift its economic base and what that might mean for the families, the neighborhoods, and the schools.  That is why my favorite part of the book is Putnam’s first chapter  about the changes Putnam noticed, and subsequently researched, when he returned to his hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio.  This chapter was excerpted in an August 3, 2013 piece by Putnam in the NY Times, Crumbling American Dreams.  Putnam’s reflection on Port Clinton demonstrates what you might find if you were to return to the community where you grew up and assemble the data to show you how times have really changed for the children now living where you spent your own childhood.

Putnam traces widespread widening income inequality within and across all racial and ethnic groups: “The gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts.  Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing….” (p. 161) The book illustrates the meaning of the data it presents with detailed profiles of children and adolescents, stories gathered in ethnographic qualitative research conducted by a team led by Jennifer M. Silva.

After chapters that examine what has happened to the family, the school, and the community and after the stories of families in communities across the United States, Putnam asks us to step back to look again at the big picture: “This up-close-and-personal focus runs the risk that we miss the deeper connection between the opportunity gap and growing income inequality. From Port Clinton to Philadelphia, and from Bend (Oregon) to Atlanta to Orange County, economic disparities among the families have been an important part of each story.  In every movement of this composition the deep, throbbing, ominous bass line has been the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper-class parents.” (p. 227)

The book’s one serious flaw is Putnam’s sketchy understanding of school finance.  He quotes economic studies that allege that school finance disparities are not the cause of achievement gaps but later argues for more teachers and counselors in schools serving children in poverty.  And although he emphasizes the importance of extracurricular activities and the inequality created when students must pay to play, he does not seem to grasp that this trend is related to diminished public dollars invested in schools.  Despite this flaw, however, I urge you to read Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. The book is important because of the clarity by which Putnam traces the tangled and profound ways income inequality shapes academic achievement gaps.