Robert D.Putnam (2015) Our Kids The American Dream in Crisis

our kids

It takes a certain sort of courage to say that you are wrong. Robert D Putnam thought all the hoo-ha of kids not being able to grow up and get on – the essence of the American dream, work hard, play hard and you’ll get your just rewards – was belly aching from those that had failed to thrive. In any society there are winners and losers. He was a winner. He didn’t come from a rich family, and through hard work became Malkin Professor of Public Policy, at one of the grand old dames of American education, Harvard University. The same University attended by the current United States President and his wife. Winners and losers. The hard working commoner can make it to the top of the political tree. All he or she needed was true grit.

Putnam looks backwards to the 1950s, his generation and his town Ohio, which was a bellwether of the United States. He extrapolated the narrative of winners and losers and looked at the data and he found a scissor like movement between rich and poor, not only in wealth, but in education, social and economic opportunity. A gap that did not exist in the cohort that he belonged to, a gap that he did not believe existed. The American Dream he found to be a nightmare for the majority of Americans.

Putnam tells the reader ‘class differences were not absent in Port Clinton in the 1950s’. But kids from the different social backgrounds attended the same school. Frank’s parents, for example, owned much of Port Clinton, but he went to the same school as the farmer and fishermen sons and daughters. He charts the success of the two black students, Jesse and Cheryl, who gained doctorate degrees at a time when the colour bar was at its highest. Frank was smart enough to play down the social and economic difference between him and his classmates. Indeed his father warned him when he went to a café he was to order only what his classmates ordered and could afford. The rules were different outside Ohio.

The rules are different but the pattern is the same for modern (or postmodern) industrial nations. Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century charts how as economic growth slows money flows at an increasing rate from the poor to the rich. In Britain, for example, the top 20% own an estimated 100 times more than the other 80%, even before the planned £12 billion of austerity cuts scythes its way through the economic system, increasing the gap even further. Data released a few weeks ago by OECD shows inequality in the UK growing even faster and further. But there is also a gap opening between the top 1% and those other 19% which is also increasing. The tail doesn’t wag the social and economic dog, the tip of the tail does.

Putnam’s graduation class of 1959 did well for themselves.

Humble class origins did not prevent them from using their talents and work ethic to achieve greater upward mobility.

Half of his class went off to college. Race was an issue, but in a climate of greater job instability and declining relative earnings that have fallen in real terms since the 1970s for those outside the top tier, being rich or poor is all about class. A class, an untermensch, in which divorce rates have steadily increased, non-marital births have increased and the number of ‘fragile families’ with absent fathers in prison have grown, as have the number living in child poverty, increasing from just under 10%  of American children in 1999 to 40% in 2013. The mark of a ‘fragile family’ is the rigid boundary of the neighbourhood where they live and where they are educated. The mixing of different social classes that Putnam fondly remembers from the 1950s is, like the Waltons, and John Boy, from a different black-and-white era in which having the right colour of skin was a passport to more.

In a more-it-ocracy those that have the best homes, the best education, the best health prospect and the most political power, demand increasingly more. And they get it. One mother for example demanded her daughter get a school prize, misguidedly awarded by teachers to another pupil, or she’d go to her friends the school governors. Her daughter deserved it. She got it.  The scissor gap between those in the high-income bracket gaining a college degree cuts the tie between rich and poor in terms of opportunity and social mobility and shows a steady upward progression from under 40% in 1970 to 80% in 2011. Those in the low-income bracket also shows a progression for those in the third-quartile (poorish) income group from just under 15% to 23%. For those in the bottom quartile its stasis. 10% to 12 or 13%. Putnam defines education as social and economic success. Those with a college education are more likely to have better jobs, better housing and be more likely to be in a stable marriage. It’s a two-income virtuous circle in which their children reap the benefits of prosperity.

Poverty is marked in other ways. Verbal interactions for example. Children of professionals with an upper-class dual income are richer in verbal encouragements and the words they are exposed to 166 000 by the time they start school, in comparison  – I’ll beat the hell out of you if you don’t stop that now – non-professional children’s exposure to 26 000 words. The patterning and division of class begins before children begin kindergarten. Children are marked out to fail even before they begin school. But those that are poor and show a greater aptitude in tests to succeed than their rich counterparts are far less likely to go onto to get a college degree. Wealth is a physical marker and guarantor of social and economic success.

Richer kids are less likely to drink or take drugs. Less likely to have been in a serious fight. Less likely to have had premarital sex (I guess that goes down as a negative, but not at my school). Less likely to be suspended from school. Stop the world. Poor kids need to get off. In a decade of zero growth and declining wages poor kids are screwed in every way.

Putnam suggests,

If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children is not good.

The prognosis for British children follows the American pattern. Those with the least social and economic capital do the least well. The only growth is in unequal opportunity.   Nobel Laureate economist James Hackman estimates that the opportunity cost of writing off our youth costs the economy around 6% to 10% GDP. Nobel economist Joe Stiglitz calls The Great Divide ‘immoral’ and counterproductive. But investment is a dirty word. More and greater austerity is called for in a failed economic experiment. Class disparities accumulate. In a tick-box society the answer is quite simple. Don’t have children unless your income is at least three times the median income. Both in absolute and in relative terms – we’re fucked.