Our Kids.

A new book by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam has instantly attracted attention (and criticism from the left), so it will be much in the news for a while.[1] Combining research in the scholarly literature with many interviews, Putnam explores the disintegration of America into polarized communities of rich and poor that threaten to become hereditary castes.

Broadly, “rich” kids have parents who finished college; grow up in two-parent families; get a lot more attention from their parents while young; get better quality day-care when their mothers get fed up and go back to work; get dragged to church on Sunday[2]; attend better schools and have more access to developmental extra-curricular activities; eat dinner as a family; are much more likely than are “poor” kids to graduate from college (and to attend better colleges at that).

Broadly, “poor” kids have parents who went no farther than high school; “are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise”; grow up in increasing numbers in broken homes; get about a third less time from their parent; get lower quality day care when their stressed-out mothers have to go back to work; skip church in favor of watching cartoons; don’t eat dinner as a family; are much less likely to attend college (and to attend lesser colleges when they go).

Jason DeParle concludes that Putnam’s “research is prodigious. His spirit is generous. His judgments are thoughtful and fair.”[3] Nevertheless, Putnam’s approach frustrates DeParle. “What [Putnam] omits… is a discussion of the political and economic forces driving the changes he laments.” Doing what Putnam left undone, DeParle argues that income inequality has grown “radically”; that the wealthy exert great influence in politics in defense of their interests; that inequality “gives those at the top [the power] to pull up the ladder”; and that Putnam “overlooks the extent to which it’s … a story about interests and power.” How can it be that, “though Putnam is a political scientist, his account is politics-free”? Doesn’t Putnam read the Times, where all of these things are high-lighted?

What DeParle fails to acknowledge is that some element of success or failure is volitional or behavioral. People drop out of high-school or out of community college; people don’t use contraceptives[4]; and people reject the life structures pursued by the successful. How is more progressive taxation or broader government programs going to counter these behaviors?

Tellingly (but perhaps without having thought through the implications), DeParle remarks that “for most [of the poor kids] the troubles seem to date back generations.” That is, long before economic inequality became a grave issue. Probably the same is true for most of the rich kids: the advantages date back generations.

Perhaps we need to ask follow-on questions. What changed to make long-standing individual failings and family dysfunction into a social disaster? What changed to make conventional bourgeois behavior into such a life advantage? Here we might look for answers in the long-term evolution of the American economy away from heavy industry and toward an economy that disproportionately rewards education. We might also look at the white flight from cities in response to both disorder and integration. Or we can stick with conspiracy theories.

[1] Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

[2] Or to synagogue on Saturday, or to the mosque on Friday. Faith doesn’t matter. Apparently what matters is making your kids endure difficulty.

[3] Jason DeParle, “No Way Up,” NYT Book Review, 8 March 2015.

[4] $19.99 for a pack of 20 Durex at Walgreen, so don’t start with the cost of birth-control pills.

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One thought on “Our Kids.

  1. Pingback: Poisonville. | waroftheworldblog

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