Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
a book by Robert D. Putnam
(our site's book review)
Robert David Putnam is a political scientist and Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The book can be summarized by asking the following poignant question: What has happened to the Land of Opportunity? The promise of the American Dream is that anyone, regardless of his or her origins, can have a fair start in life. If we work hard, we can get a good education and achieve success. But over the last several decades a disturbing 'opportunity gap' has unexpectedly emerged between kids from "have" and "have-not" backgrounds. This gap means fewer Americans today have the opportunity for upward mobility.
If we work hard, we can get a good education and achieve success—right?
Putnam tells poignant stories of rich and poor kids from cities and suburbs across the country, drawing on a formidable body of research undertaken especially for this book, which says a lot about his persistence, dedication, and scholarship. (He used classmates from his own high school class of 1959.) This is no unreadable academic tome filled with theoretical flapdoodle, by any means. There are "our kids," whose lot in life as well as potentials and hopes and likely realities are relatively bright and shiny. Then there are "their kids," whose situations are generally degenerating, and whose potentials and hopes and likely realities are relatively dark and tarnished. But more than income inequality is at work, he tells us. Due to this inequality, family, parenting, schooling, and community circumstances modern children are subjected to in our country are very different for haves and have-nots.
However, more than just the well-known and much discussed income gap, he examines the "opportunity gap," and sees how the haves get more as the have-nots get less. He reveals that the American dream of working hard to gain income and social status is broken for the have-nots. For many poor and uneducated Americans, this dream is mostly a myth. Putnam determines that class—more than race—is the most significant factor to explain this opportunity gap.
The solutions he proposes are improving education quality and improving access to good public education (is that an oxymoron?) and providing a living wage. He recommends expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credit, protecting anti-poverty programs to reduce financial and emotional stress for families, reducing sentencing for non-violent crime to keep two-parent households intact, investing extra money in schools in poor neighborhoods, and killing "pay to play" extracurriculars.
Should we follow his liberal recommendations for giving the green light to more social engineering superheroes using money we do not have?
Can a society overinvested in warmongering and underinvested in social spending really afford to thumb its nose at our 19 trillion dollar national debt and follow his liberal recommendations for more social engineering? Exactly what cities are going to vote to tax their citizens so they can invest "extra money" in schools in poor neighborhoods even though to the average voter that would equate to pouring money down a rat hole? And where is this "extra money" idea coming from? Our cities are struggling—and these struggles are hardly about figuring out what to do with all the extra money they have lying around!national debt
Unless American citizens start defecating money, the debt has put us all in deep doo-doo
Of course, what else can a liberal Harvard professor do but put more blind faith in social engineering, in spite of the poor track record of such social meddling? As the wisdom of the market is to conservatives, tax and spend is to liberals. The fact is, the guidance provided by these philosophical old saws seems to lead both camps astray more often than not these days. These days neither the saw-guided thinking nor the saw-guided actions of these camps is wise or even useful, but this doesn't seem to lead to either reconsideration or insight on the part of anyone, except for some wise book authors whose works seem to go both unread and unheeded. Perhaps these old saws are simply bad ideas, useful in the past but no longer viable?
Maybe Second Wave ideas need to be replaced by Third Wave ideas. Or we could say we need to relax our insistent grip on the mechanistic-reductionistic paradigm and opt instead for grasping the ecological-holistic paradigm. The former was focused of coercion, quantity, exploitation, domination and competition and was much too eager for warmongering. The latter focused on philosophical, ecological, spiritual, feminist, and holistic contexts.
Perhaps tax-and-spend liberalism has had its day and we need a better idea (MCs)
Putnam's blending of storytelling with scholarly research with an aim toward presenting policy implications is a bit unusual but hardly unique, as social research has been around since 1086 (surveys—the Domesday Book) or the 1890s (Émile Durkheim, the father of sociology). Studies would often use open-ended interviews and commonly combine, or 'triangulate', quantitative and qualitative methods as part of a 'multi-strategy' design in their research. The most unusual aspect of Putnam's work is the risk of deviation from usual ruthlessly objective sociological methods full of boring numbers and theories and opting instead for anecdotal evidence and real people interviews. Not enough of a sample group to draw any rock-solid conclusions leading to earth-shaking insights, but his study was intriguing and indicative, for all that.
Surveys are great marketing, sociological, and demographic research tools
The separation of neighborhoods by class has yielded a two-tier social system—a new classism. His idea that this classism was not as prevalent in the 1950s can well be challenged and some reviewers did. See also The Way We Never Were. Is his book ruthlessly objective sociology or merely high octane nostalgia for his childhood old home town? Perhaps both.
The NEA has a choke-hold on American education that only the MC movement could alter
So how CAN we bring back the opportunity to have-nots as well as haves? There will be no social spending money, and doling out cash to schools has done little good except please the NEA, who then turned around and asked for more. So forget the social engineering route. It hasn't worked, won't work, and the funds well has run dry. The answer is MCs, which will give the have-nots more money due to free childcare and elder care, as well as instill character and ethics in these citizens as well as autonomy, maturity, and wisdom. They will start doing better in school and then when they apply for jobs, they'll have the prerequisites so they'll get hired. Community will be restored and ambition will replace apathy and hopelessness. A rising tide lifts all boats is the appropriate aphorism here.
MCs will give the have-nots—and everyone else—more money due to free childcare and elder care
MCs will give the have-nots—and everyone else—more money due to free childcare and elder care
Bowling Alone created a resounding splash in 1995 when he showed that community life outside government and business (the proliferation of voluntary organizations that observers since Tocqueville have noted as a special feature of American culture) had severely eroded. In short, communities were dying, and now they were mere aggregations hardly worthy of the name community. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Putnam's latest work, is no longer merely saying Where's the community? but rather Where's the opportunity? See Why Do We Need Communities?.
People have tried top-down political solutions to degenerating communities, but it was like the tale of the little Dutch boy who saves his country by putting his finger in a leaking dike, except in the case of the politicians it simply didn't work. No community got saved.
Is there any hope for rebuilding or at least empowering communities? Without MCs, there simply is no way. People have tried top-down political solutions and throw-money-at-it experiments as well as tax-and-spend liberal pseudo-solutions using blind faith that government is the answer. This has led nowhere. At best they accomplished cosmetic mending of superficialities akin to the tale of the little Dutch boy who saves his country by putting his finger in a leaking dike, except there is no saving—just political flapdoodle, pork barrel spending, lots of money spent for little if any gain, and politicians finding ways of looking busy so voters don't "throw the bums out." See The Responsive Communitarian Platform and Building a Community of Citizens: Civil Society in the 21st Century.
Don Eberly says it best: "Politicians cannot create lost community, only citizens can . . . Whatever government does or does not do, the job of restoration and renewal will fall heavily to citizens. . . . responsibility must be made the cornerstone of America’s basic social contract." Character is the key ingredient missing in pretty dreams of opportunity restoration—and brilliant minds like Don Eberly have been chanting this very same message, and yet is the whole thing a Maine joke? You cannot build strong character without doing it in strong communities, and yet you cannot build strong community unless you do so by populating it with people of strong character. Does this put the community renewal movement out of business? Renewal will not work unless both character and community issues are solved concomitantly, which is simply beyond the power of anything in existence except MCs.
Character is the key ingredient missing in pretty dreams of opportunity restoration; renewal will not work unless both character and community issues are solved concomitantly, which is simply beyond the power of anything in existence except MCs