Today we finish up our online reading of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
The book’s final chapter reflects on the problems diagnosed so far, and asks simply, classically, “What is to be Done?” As with previous chapters I’ll summarize its content, then offer some reflections, followed by questions. There’s also a PS on this reading process.
The chapter begins by quickly summarizing the book so far, then extrapolating from those points. Increasing inequality may actually cost the American economy, in terms of opportunities lost (231-4). On top of that, the widening class gap may lead to decreasing political participation and civic engagement, which could further split the classes (234-7). Which would then become intergenerational – in other words,
Inherited political inequality brings us uncomfortably close to the political regime against which the American Revolution was fought. (237)
Perhaps things will get worse still. Putnam evokes demagogues and fascism, linking civic disengagement to totalitarianism via Hannah Arendt (239-40).
So what is to be done? Our Kids wants national experimentation with local variations, sounding like FDR’s early New Deal but referencing instead the prior Progressive Era (243-4). Details:
- Spend more on tax credits to poor families, like the Earned Income Tax Credit.
- Cut back on incarceration to get poor adults back with families.
- Build bigger early childhood education services.
- Attracting the best teachers to the poorest K-12 schools.
- Growing community schools (Geoffrey Canada gets an approving nod) and Catholic schools.
- Expand extracurricular activities in K-12 schools.
- Backing away from trying to get everyone some college, in favor of rebuilding vocational tracks.
- Increasing funding for community colleges.
- Expand mentoring programs, including ones based in churches.
- Rebuilding neighborhoods.
- Raising wages for the lowest-paid jobs.
Interestingly, Putnam refuses some policy ideas, such as programs to keep poor parents together (244-5), charter schools (253), and spending more money on schools.
Putnam makes a vital point and personal admission in this chapter. He thinks the gap between rich and poor has now become epistemological – the wealthy simply don’t know much about the lives of the lower classes. And “[b]efore I began this research, I was like that.” (230) That’s a blatant confession of higher education’s own class differences and resulting blindness.
The chapter offers an interesting politics. Early on it makes one implicit theme clearly explicit: “this is a book without upper-class villains.” (229) Putnam takes care to assign ambitious and hard work to his elite characters. Here I must disagree. First, this character focus lets Putnam avoid structural and policy forces which drive inequality, such as tax policy and banking deregulation; for these we can certainly find culpable actors. Second, Putnam doesn’t choose any upper-class characters who subsist on inherited wealth without an active life of their own.
Later Putnam takes care to avoid aligning with either Republicans or Democrats, seeing the book’s subject as “the ultimate ‘purple’ problem”.
Some causes (like nonmarital births) are seen more clearly through ‘red’ conservative lenses, while others (like growing economic inequality) are accentuated by ‘blue’ liberal lenses. (243)
I’m honestly not sure how this would work, given intense political polarization.
Overall I find these solutions to be very weak. They are low-level moves, tweaks to deeper problems. They don’t address structural issues. There’s no mention of, for example, the growth and influence of the financial sector, or the way the upper classes have largely avoided military service for the first time in American history, or of how trade treaties like NAFTA increased economic inequality. We have plenty of explanations readily available, like Robert Reich’s recent post or the important work of Thomas Piketty.
Perhaps this weakness, this depoliticization is due to a desire to win the broadest possible audience, or as a way to maximize approaches to presidential candidates. But it’s disappointing analytically, and caps the book’s narrative and emotional arc with an anticlimax.
In this chapter Putnam occasionally waxes poetic:
In every movement of this composition the deep, throbbing, ominous bass line has been the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper-class parents. (227)
Am I too harsh on Putnam’s recommendations?
Are there other options we can pursue that he doesn’t address?
How do Our Kids‘ narrative strategies (characters, the memory of the author’s hometown) play out in this chapter?
4. Concluding the reading
Let me conclude by thanking the many commentators for their contributions. I’ve learned much from folks who shared thoughts in comments here, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Google+. You were generous with your personal experiences and reflections. Thank you for (deep breath) amandasturgill, bboessen, Daniel F. Bassill, ellenandjim, geekymom, Jenny Colvin, Joe Murphy, Mary Dockray-Miller,
Rolin Moe, Thomas, Tim Owens, valbock . Folks tweeting at #OurKids offered a nice range of perspectives.
Overall, I think this exploded book club idea, this social media discussion format worked well. How did it go for you?
Previously in our reading:
- Chapter 1, “The American Dream: Myths and Realities”
- Chapter 2, “Families”
- Chapter 3, “Parenting”
- Chapter 4, “Schooling”
- Chapter 5, “Community”
- Planning this reading