Book Reviews

Lost Opportunity

Robert Putnam on inequality should have been seismic. The book has merit, but it doesn’t stay focused on the real problem.

By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Tagged Inequality

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis By Robert D. Putnam • Simon & Schuster • 2015 • 400 pages • $28

In a 1995 issue of the Journal of Democracy, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published the essay that would become the basis of his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. By the time I arrived at Brandeis University as a sociology major in the fall of 2009, Bowling Alone was gospel. When the title came up in class discussion, there was no need to elucidate one’s point further; it was enough to say, “You know, like Putnam says in Bowling Alone . . . ” and everyone would know what you were getting at. To invoke Putnam’s book was to invoke a complex and compelling tangle of critiques of American life and its discontents, a rangy theory of alienation, isolation, and flagging democracy that appealed deeply. Part of what made Bowling so persuasive is how seriously it took the aspects of American society we consider unique and valuable: our voluntary associations, civic participation, and democratic sensibilities. This is a commendable instinct of Putnam’s, one that allows him to neatly diagnose the ills plaguing America, and to do so in a way that captures the imaginations of his readers.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis follows in the same vein as Bowling Alone: It aims to name and redress the major issue of our day. In identifying inequality as the definitive concern of our time, Putnam agrees with a slew of other acclaimed recent works, including Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Anthony B. Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done? But his approach to defining inequality differs vastly from Piketty’s and Atkinson’s. Rather than registering it in terms of income, wealth, or other such indicators, Putnam settles on the “opportunity gap”—that is, the difference between wealthy kids’ and poor kids’ chances at getting and staying ahead—as the paradigmatic expression of modern inequality. His methods for understanding and demonstrating the opportunity gap also lead him far afield from most quantitative treatments of inequality, which brings to mind the criticisms of Bowling Alone that tentative Putnam fans likely hoped he would have learned from. Namely, that the claims Putnam is most invested in making lack substantive data; that the solutions he suggests are thin and sometimes ill-conceived; and—most crucially, in my view—that his chosen frame prevents him from presenting a full account of the phenomenon he witnesses.

None of this is to assert that what Putnam observes about the inequality of opportunity in America is really wrong; there is clear inequality of opportunity among children of different social classes, though reliable data suggest that Putnam is mistaken to believe the problem is speedily worsening. The trouble with his focus is rather that it critiques how people are coping with the reality of rapidly increasing social inequality—that is, by working intensely to ensure their children’s success on the wealthy end, or failing to do so on the poor end—instead of taking issue with inequality itself. A handful of Putnam’s solutions to the opportunity gap would potentially reduce inequality, such as expanding the earned-income tax credit, creating a de facto child benefit, and abolishing mass incarceration. Others seem to be good ideas on their own merits, such as ending pay-to-play policies for extracurricular activities. But his gaze falls upon opportunity, not equality. And these are, in the end, two separate things.

Our Kids opens by introducing Putnam’s thesis: that “the class-based opportunity gap among young people has widened in recent decades.” Threaded through the four subject-focused chapters of the book (families, parenting, schooling, and community) are accounts of the lives of several people Putnam and his team interviewed in order to demonstrate the gravity of the gap in opportunity between rich kids and poor kids. Another conceit rests atop this one: Putnam also turned his attention to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, to seek out and interview members of his 1959 graduating high school class. Throughout the book, these two sets of interviews—one with Putnam’s now elderly former classmates, the other with young families from across America—unfold in contrast, to demonstrate the stark differences between opportunity then and now.

Putnam also draws upon quantitative data to shore up these personal accounts, though it is a qualified set. “[C]onventional indicators of social mobility are invariably three or four decades out of date,” he writes, a point he says is “crucial for this book.” This is to say that, because the proof of the phenomenon Putnam means to demonstrate will only manifest itself in the future, he can only adduce evidence that seems to “foreshadow changes” he expects in the coming years. He selects indicators of rising inequality from across the social spectrum—income, education, trends in family composition and parenting styles, and so on—and proposes that they will negatively affect social mobility in the decades ahead. The most quantitatively convincing parts of Putnam’s book are reminiscent of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level (2009) in their robust showing of inequality-related data from many aspects of life; the rest is a little like qualitative sociology (though Putnam claims Our Kids is not a sociological text). The least convincingly argued part is Putnam’s thesis itself—that equality of opportunity is swiftly disappearing—which is mainly visible in the introduction and conclusion.

With the data available and his capable analysis of it, Putnam is able to advance the argument that, in all areas of American life, inequality is on the rise. He points out, inter alia, that the United States’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the 1980s, with perilous impacts on the children of imprisoned fathers; that wealthier parents have drastically ramped up spending on their children compared to their poorer counterparts; and that poor kids have dropped out of extracurricular activities at a quicker pace than wealthier ones. The facts add up to a picture of America being torn asunder—a “kind of incipient class apartheid,” as Putnam aptly puts it—which is a notion that should by now be distressingly familiar to observers of national trends. Putnam thus does an excellent job of highlighting the calamitous rise of inequality. The weird turn of Our Kids is that, for some reason, he doesn’t actually aim to address it.

Putnam’s unwillingness to directly confront the foundational causes of inequality is something that can get lost in the weeds of Our Kids, in part because the writer is a gifted throat-clearer. At every turn, he is willing to affirm that extant inequality is itself a serious problem, but as soon as the admission comes up, he smoothly puts it aside.

The conclusion to his chapter on parenting is exemplary. “[S]everal high-quality experimental studies have shown that simply giving poor families money can improve the academic and social performance of their kids—money matters,” Putnam notes, then adds: “That said, the best scientific evidence confirms that the patterns of parenting illustrated by our three Atlanta families represent broad trends across America. The disadvantages facing poor kids begin early and run deep.” Despite Putnam’s contention that “money matters,” parenting practices—such as spending time on developmental activities, something he terms “Goodnight Moon time”—are what he shows interest in altering. He seems aware that financial stress obliterates the ability of poor parents to provide the kind of enrichment-focused attention that wealthier parents do, but at the same time discretely lists “class-based differences in parenting” in a sequence of ills along with “material deprivation”—as though the two are not directly and probably causally linked. Why target the symptom and not the disease?

I suspect there are two reasons. First, Putnam’s decision to structure Our Kids around the personal stories of various people limits him in some sense to the world of the actual or immediately possible. That is, when you encounter struggling people, you want to strategize for them in order to help them, and a great deal of Putnam’s thinking revolves around what kinds of solutions might have helped his interviewees. But it is only possible to strategize for a person in the world she actually lives in; it is not effective to say, for instance, that a child whose drug-addled parents failed to support her academic interests should have been born in a country with a lower incidence of drug addiction. It is, on the other hand, very tempting to imagine ways in which she might utilize robust community mentorship, the guidance of teachers, or the friendship of helpful neighbors to steady her progress. Putnam’s hyper-personal focus inclines him mainly—though not exclusively—to the latter kind of thinking, which is by necessity limited to the treatment of symptoms. On an individual, person-by-person basis, that really is the only level of contemplation that makes sense.

The second reason Putnam resists addressing inequality directly is related, but perhaps more insidious. He appears to be under the spell of a particular theory about social equity and economic growth that matches his own predictive thrust in its paucity of real-world evidence. “We could pursue policies that would enhance social equity,” he muses, “say, by redistributing income through the tax system—but only at the cost of economic productivity.” He supplies the work of the economist Arthur Okun as proof of this “Big Tradeoff,” which, he smugly notes, does not apply to his pet project of equality of opportunity. It also does not necessarily apply to reality.

Okun’s wager was theoretical when he proposed it in his 1975 Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, and history has not been kind to his prophecy. Between 1979 and 2007, 20 high-income OECD countries reported government revenues that spanned from (on average) 35 percent of GDP on the lower end to roughly 60 percent of GDP on the higher end. Were Okun’s prediction accurate, those nations with higher taxes would have experienced lower economic growth, and those with lower taxes higher rates of growth. In fact, there was no correlation between tax levels and growth whatsoever. Perhaps more compelling yet, U.S. government revenue has increased from roughly 10 percent of GDP to 35 percent of GDP while the economy has maintained a near-constant rate of growth, with no pronounced slowdown. Worse yet for Putnam, countries with higher taxes and vigorous redistributive programs, like Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, tend to have higher levels of social mobility than the United States. The more equal a country’s income distribution, it appears, the easier it is to get ahead.

It is also puzzling that Putnam insists on brooding over inequality of opportunity when there is little evidence that it is set to explode in the way he supposes. He cites the work of economist Raj Chetty, whose meticulous analysis of American social mobility suggests that the American Dream has always been somewhat elusive. Chetty finds that mobility has remained essentially constant over the 1971-1993 birth cohorts, and that, if anything, mobility has increased somewhat for younger generations. It is hard to understand why, with such strong research available on questions of mobility, taxation, and redistributive policy, Putnam would restrict himself to solutions that range from the quaint (“Insist that pay-to-play be ended,” he advises, referring to school policies that require fees to participate in extracurricular activities) to the viable but bafflingly underemphasized (“Protect long-standing antipoverty programs, like food stamps, housing vouchers, and child care support,” he offers meekly). Part of his problem arises from trying to fix an entire nation in a single popular press book—but the greater part of it issues from his bizarre reading of inequality and its outcomes as two discrete issues that can be handled separately with any kind of efficacy.

Our Kids is, in the end, a tangled and weedy volume. Its rapid switches between lengthy meditations on its interview subjects, data analysis, and different brands of intermixed economic theory make it a somewhat dizzying read. Putnam’s conviction that equality of opportunity is a sui generis phenomenon rather than an expression of other, more foundational, forms of inequality inclines his approach to be scattered and glancing, and his proposed solutions feel accordingly incoherent. If Our Kids is not, as Putnam claims, a sociological text, then what is it?

It is, if nothing else, a valuable critique of a kind of American naiveté. Putnam is right to point out that the bootstrapping American ideal is de facto impossible for the vast majority of our citizenry, especially the lower classes. Demonstrating this was one of his hopes for Our Kids: “[O]ne central purpose of this book,” he writes, “is to enlarge the number of educated Americans who appreciate ‘how the other half lives’.” Further, Putnam himself submits that “[e]quality of opportunity is not a simple guide to public action,” though he follows up with a quick recovery: “We don’t have to believe in perfect equality of opportunity to agree that our religious ideals and our basic moral code demand more equality of opportunity than we have now.” It is a pity, though, that Putnam does not interrogate further what this observation means. If he did, we would find that his project ultimately supports the system it aims to critique, and puts at risk the very institutions he aims to preserve.

Putnam’s expectation that parenting adapt itself to the shape of modern American capitalism is a prime example. With good schooling at such a premium, parents have to undertake a variety of strategies in order to secure prime spots for their children. While Putnam recommends highly involved parenting (he scolds those who view the term “helicopter parenting” as pejorative), wealthy moms and dads across America have already formulated various tactics. There is, for instance, the odious practice of redshirting, in which well-off parents hold their children back from entering school with their age cohort, so that when they do begin school, they have a developmental advantage over their classmates, resulting in years of better performance and higher grades. (Poorer parents, meanwhile, typically do not have the luxury of spending money on an extra year of child care while they withhold their kids from entering school.) Perhaps Putnam would disapprove of this practice, but it demonstrates the degree to which modern parenting has become a process by which parents shape children into the fiercest possible competitors in a capitalist system. In his vision of a better society, even downtime, shared hobbies, and family dinners are first and foremost opportunities to shape children into capable competitors in a high-stakes market.

These pressures fall disproportionately on women, who, in a world focused on producing raw equality of opportunity, find their decisions most thoroughly delimited by the vicissitudes of the market. Not only are women saddled with most of the work of child care; women also conceive and give birth to children, meaning that their reproductive choices are open to special scrutiny from the standpoint of equal-opportunity campaigns. Putnam, for instance, advocates the (as of late celebrated) strategy of distributing IUDs to poor young women in order to stave off childbirth until, one assumes, a woman is ready to provide an upbringing for her child that would make him or her competitive with the wealthiest of children. This very well could provide a boost to children born to poor mothers, but it also has the effect of subjecting women’s reproductive choices to the judgment of the free market (and its supporters) instead of her own sense of when she is physically and emotionally ready to raise a baby. She would then find her parenting choices framed not in terms of her religion, culture, or personal relationship with her child, but rather in terms of what would best prepare her child for competition for income. (That an act as intimate and private as breastfeeding has become such an extraordinary source of stress for new mothers thanks to its oft-touted later-in-life benefits for children is an example of this sort of distortion at work.) The quest for equality of opportunity, in other words, ends up sacrificing a certain equity in burdens, especially when it comes to gender.

In a world where opportunity, not outcome, is the order of the day, families, churches, and community organizations also find their purposes defined by the market. Putnam is terrifically hopeful about the prospect of churches rallying to reduce the opportunity gap, writing, “If America’s religious communities were to become seized of the immorality of the opportunity gap, mentoring is one of the ways in which they could make an immediate impact.” And yet, mentoring children to function better in the educational or job market is hardly the role of houses of worship. In the case of Christianity, it is hard for me to countenance the idea of churches morphing into veritable training grounds for future college candidates when they should be helping adherents cultivate a spiritual sensibility that is ultimately fulfilled in the next life, not this one. But the decision to cope with a system’s whims, rather than shake its foundations, can have a very earthly effect on heavenly institutions.

Which is a curious cause for Putnam to come around to. For someone who championed the lasting value of America’s voluntary organizations in Bowling Alone, he seems eager to watch all of those institutions—and the myriad other relationships that form the fabric of our lives—prioritize the shoring up of a market system that guarantees a rarified few extraordinary wealth, and an unhappy many unbearable hardship.

Massive and rising inequality is a threat to our families, religious communities, voluntary organizations, and regular citizens for all of the reasons Putnam observes. But the reality is that nothing will fix that except reducing inequality itself, through the kinds of solutions Putnam maligns. Anything else will merely shuffle around who makes it to what station, but the stations themselves will remain.

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Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes on Christianity and politics.

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