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Robert Putnam Our Kids

Photo: Martha Stewart

Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Ever since his widely read Bowling Alone called attention to the decline of community in American society, Robert Putnam a fame shared by few academics. He’s at it again, this time on the wide and growing inequality of life prospects between the affluent and the poor. From family life, to parenting, to schooling, to community involvement, the latest research invariably shows that young people at the top of the heap are steadily getting better off, while those at the bottom are getting worse. He repeatedly cites the metaphor of scissors: the top blade is relentlessly diverging from the bottom.

The case is buttressed by in-depth interviews of youths and their parents (where parents were available), from his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, to Bend, Oregon, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Orange County, California. In each location, youths and families from the top and the bottom were interviewed. The invariable pattern is that the families at the top afford their children with copious, mutually reinforcing advantages, while the kids at the bottom struggle through very challenging circumstances with little or no support.

Progressives have been calling attention to these issues for a long time, but we feel like we’re just fighting a rearguard action against powerful forces that are making American society ever more unequal, unjust, and undemocratic. When Putnam weighs in, though, it’s especially significant because he’s really not one of us. You can see that most clearly in his concluding chapter, with the ironically Leninist title, “What Is to Be Done?”

Progressives looking at this dire dilemma would likely, at a minimum, come up with proposals for comprehensive new national policy initiatives to fundamentally reshape American society. Many of us would go further to demand radical regulation or outright elimination of capitalism as we know it. From the progressive point of view, capitalism (especially as it has been allowed to run amok) is the problem.

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Putnam believes in the American Dream. He thinks we don’t need to reinvent America; we need to restore it.

Putnam doesn’t go there. His last chapter is all about diverse local initiatives that have been shown to help the disadvantaged get closer to equality of opportunity. Given the prolonged political impasse in Washington, that may be the best bet anyway. But one suspects that Putnam is skeptical of the very idea that policy change at the top will solve the problem.

Putnam believes in the American Dream. He thinks we don’t need to reinvent America; we need to restore it. He wants to see his country become, again, a society where people care for each other, where community has meaning, where everyone has a fair shot. This is a conservatism fundamentally concerned with assuring the ongoing health and stability of American society.

What passes for conservatism today has nothing in common with Putnam. Inspired by Ayn Rand, and ultimately by the social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century, conservatives today are really advocates of radical transformation through the systematic destruction of the social fabric that sustains the least well-off, while glorifying the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the top one percent. The whole emphasis is on economic liberty for the rich (and the would-be rich). Stability is the enemy.

Putnam’s perspective has a great deal in common with mainstream American liberalism; that is where he will find most support. Avowed “conservatives” will mostly reject his concerns, but perhaps some few will see the value of stability and community. Progressives ought to recognize that building a society that is more humane for all, even without abolishing capitalism, is still vital, if incomplete.

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John Peeler