Concluding Robert Putnam’s _Our Kids_, asking “What is To Be Done?”

Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_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.

1. Summary

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.

Ripton school picnic 2009

My town’s elementary school having a picnic.

2. Reflections

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)

3. Questions

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:

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
This entry was posted in research topics, reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Concluding Robert Putnam’s _Our Kids_, asking “What is To Be Done?”

  1. I agree that the conclusions are weak, however I am hopeful that some of us can rid on Putnam’s coattails and attract attention for deeper thinking on the problem and solutions. I appreciate you leading this conversation and visiting my blog to see some of my suggestions.

    I’ve tagged articles on my blog so readers might look at the information from specific perspectives. One set of articles is tagged “systems thinking”. In this I show how people are mapping process and and problem solving steps, creating blueprints and road maps that others can follow. I encourage this process to take place in many sectors, on an on-going basis.

    We need lots of people digging deeper into this information and innovating ways to get others involved.

    • Good point about the positive effects and affordances Putnam’s work may have. Perhaps the Progressive era is actually an apt analogy, as that wasn’t lead by any one politician or movement, but by many folks working at different projects.

      • Bryan, by leading this book discussion you are taking on one of the four steps shown in this problem solving strategy Pdf. You’re a “facilitator” (step 3) helping other people understand available information (Putnam’s book, ideas of others, etc.). In the PDF I show maps of Chicago, which are essential for building an understanding of where kids and families need extra help. I also use graphics to illustrate that a wide range of age-appropriate help needs to be available in all of these places. It’s a daunting challenge.

        In another section of my web library I point to an on-line documentation system, called OHATS (Organizational History and Tracking System) which I launched in 2000. You can see it at It would be great to have you and others facilitate an understanding of what OHATS is and why it’s important. It’s a documentation system where on a regular basis people could document what actions they or their company, church, college, etc. to close the opportunity gap growing between rich and poor. I’ve documented over 1300 actions that I’ve taken. If just 100 other people were doing the same, including people like Robert Putnam, we could have a huge impact on this problem, and the future of our country.

      • I’ll take a look into OHATS, Daniel. My summer and autumn are filling up, though.

  2. First off, thanks to Bryan for leading this discussion and allowing me (and the rest of us) to reflect more deeply on this book than I would have if I had just read it on my own. I think that part of Putnam’s blandness, throughout and esp here at the end, is his attempt to bridge the political divide and be heard by those on the ends as well as in the middle of the political spectrum. Given our current political climate, I think that’s a noble goal — if we can get a group of (say) presidential candidates simply to agree that there IS a problem with income inequality, that would be a huge and positive step away from where we are now (“heartless conservatives” vs “bleeding heart liberals” who call each other names and don’t accomplish anything). So I’m willing to let Putnam’s caution be an asset in our contemporary culture. Looking forward to hearing from everyone on twitter and elsewhere! MDM

  3. Joe Murphy says:

    I don’t think you’re being too harsh at all. I think Putnam’s argument in this chapter is “all hands on deck!” With the problems we’re facing, trying anything would be an improvement. Unfortunately, I think that waters down into “throw it all at the wall and see if anything sticks” – as you and Mary point out, Putnam’s trying to keep his whole upper-middle-class audience engaged, and doing it by trying to not take a stand.

    Nowhere is this as clear as when Putnam says “there are no villains here” and then, a few pages later, says that there’s a moral duty to protect the least fortunate. Maybe “villainy” requires an active desire to harm others… but if I’m failing to carry out my moral duty, that at least makes me a sinner. I don’t think sugar-coating that helps anything.

    (I spent a lot of time thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan in this chapter. The priest and the Levite were culturally important, righteous people… arguably “upper middle class.” On a dangerous road, with conflicting cultural messages, they chose to protect themselves instead of be at risk. OK, they’re not “villains”… but their behavior is still called out as wrong. I wish Putnam had gone as far.)

    I was a little concerned by Putnam’s approval for options like private schooling and mixed-income housing. I’m not opposed to either option – heck, I’m the product of entirely Catholic schooling – but I am concerned about the degree to which these mean taking some of the families who care most out of their neighborhood institutions, perhaps leaving behind the families least prepared to lead positive neighborhood change. I go back and forth on that argument – Putnam includes plenty of examples of people who will move on their own to get out of a bad neighborhood or into a better school, so maybe the answer is to improve access to that choice which is normalized in the middle-class. But it’s an uncomfortable tension.

    I will grant Putnam this – when he actually did pull out the stops, and say “go tell your school superintendent that pay-to-play is unfair”, I think he changed my mind. I’ve thought of pay-to-play as a pretty reasonable response by our local districts to failed school levies. Now I have to admit that, as much as I want to see some people pay the cost for their ballot choices, the long-term costs are quite inequitably visited onto lower-income students.

    And as far as the virtual book club, thank you! It was terrific! One of my jobs for next week is to plan out just such a summer book club (probably a mix of f2f and online) for Kenyon.

    • I wonder if Putnam would like the Good Samaritan parallel. He might, especially as it could appeal to red state folks, for whom Biblical stories tend to have a higher resonance.

      Thank you for your comments and thoughts, Joe. It’s been good to see you reading along with us.

  4. ellenandjim says:

    I’ve read along intermittently and while you, Bryan, were reading and blogging, I came across an article-essay on the book, probably in the NYRB which made the same points you have in this last post. Putnam is just tweaking the outward manifestations of the problems, not looking at fundamental underlying causes that need political will (and changes in people running gov’ts). I did not realize he refuses to finger individuals and people as actors; there are indeed villains. My understanding of what charter schools are suggest they are forms of privatization, invented to undermine the public school system which is what needs reforming.

    Thank you for all the blogs.

  5. I agree with you, Bryan, that it is possibly a misstep not to assign any blame to the elite! I have one major population that I don’t feel is given much time, one I feel could provide some of the “hands on deck” required for some of his solutions. And that is …. drum roll… OLD PEOPLE.

    That’s right, old people. I mean people who have retired, who have another 20-30 YEARS before they leave this earth. People who have the connection to Putnam’s earlier idealized time of hard work paying off and communities looking after one another. Where are they? Why are the volunteers he mentioned recent college grads? Recent college grads are having a harder time justifying programs like Teach for America and AmeriCorps because they have loan debt keeping them up at night.

    Older generations, according to Putnam, are more likely to be involved in a church community. Churches, he says, are a central place for support in hard times, yet lower income younger people are not involved with them as frequently as in previous generations. How could the older people serve as a bridge between the communities they participate in and the people in need?

    Older generations, according to Putnam, are more politically active. Who better than them to mentor younger people in political activism, even if this is just encouraging them to vote?

    Older generations, according to me, are likely to be home during the day, on their front porches, watching the children as they head off to misbehave. I am remembering the chapter on the elderly in “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond. He talks about how elder care suffers because of the ways our society has changed, and so many adult children are not near their parents. There must be some kind of reciprocal solution here. I was just at a retirement home yesterday with my storytelling class and heard multiple times from residents how much contact with younger people means to them. They do not necessarily have the mobility or connections to seek it out but there is so much interest, so much need. Can’t we take advantage of this potential?

    Thank you for hosting this readalong. I got a lot more out of the book by reading your comments and the comments by others. It got me thinking!

    • Jenny, I think you are right to point out the many experiences that older people might offer to help youth in disadvantaged areas. The Baby Boomer population also represents a huge source of wealth that is being transferred to younger generations. If just a fraction of that were devoted to creating and supporting on-going tutoring, mentoring and learning programs reaching youth in high poverty areas, it could have a huge positive impact.

      However, the senior population mirrors they younger population in terms of class/wealth differences. In Putnam’s book he pointed out that in some neighborhoods seniors were disappearing (or not out on the front porch any longer).

      I’d like to have seen Putnam talk more about bridging social capital, or connections that link people to experiences not normally included in their family community or school. Mentoring programs that connect volunteers from diverse work backgrounds model opportunities not frequently modeled in high poverty. Seniors with diverse work and business experiences are less available in high poverty areas, thus there are too few who could mentor expanded life opportunities.

      I’ve talked in earlier posts about my use of maps. If one were to map senior citizen populations and color code the map by income demographics, education levels, and most recent work experience, you’d see a map with many seniors full of experience living in neighborhoods far away from the high poverty neighborhoods where they are most needed and few seniors with diverse experiences and college educations living in poverty areas.

      If the map were available as a planning tool people could begin to look for ways to connect people from rich and poor neighborhoods. In smaller cities this might be easier than in larger cities because distances are smaller.

      I’ve spent time in the past thinking of how to get seniors involved with the youth in our tutor/mentor program in Chicago. I’ve found that many seniors are afraid to leave their home or building, or won’t leave during the evening hours or can’t because of physical limitations. That means the kids must come to them, or transportation would need to bring groups of seniors to tutor/mentor sites where they felt safe. This represents a logistical problem.

      If a map showing senior citizen homes in the city and suburbs were created, this could be a tool for planning how to connect seniors in different parts of the city with programs, schools and youth in the same parts of the city.

      These are problems that might be overcome, but first people need to begin thinking of this as something that needs to happen. Putnam’s book draws attention to the problem. Perhaps a first step is to get it read in book clubs, senior homes, church groups, etc. just to start people thinking of why and how they could get involved.

      That might lead a few affluent seniors to provide the money needed to create data portals, with maps and other resources that could support collaboration. If maps like I’ve described were on-line, discussion groups, just like this, could enlist ideas of seniors, youth, policy makers, funders and program leaders in on-going discussion seeking the most workable ways to connect seniors and other volunteers with youth, and to keep them connected for many years.

      • “If one were to map senior citizen populations and color code the map by income demographics, education levels, and most recent work experience, you’d see a map with many seniors full of experience living in neighborhoods far away from the high poverty neighborhoods where they are most needed and few seniors with diverse experiences and college educations living in poverty areas.”
        What a huge development. That means a growing mental distance between generations and income brackets.

      • I agree with the practical considerations but for every older person who won’t/can’t leave the house, I wonder how many are untapped? I’d like to see this data too.

        • Jenny, I fully agree. I’ve been trying to find the talent/money for many years to build the information base that would help us better involve different sectors, including seniors and faith based, in support of youth tutor, mentor and learning programs in different places. Businesses have research and development and market research departments that spend millions of dollars understanding customers and market potential. They have all sorts of measurement tools to help them understand the success of their sales programs.

          Those of us who are trying to help kids and families in poverty don’t have such resources and we won’t unless a) a university or business becomes our partner; b) some senior recognizes the need and bequests his wealth for this purpose.

          As Bryan said, Putnam has not put the responsibility on my generation and older to fuel this effort.

    • My pleasure, Jenny.

      I hear you about the senior outreach. That’s Putnam’s generation, and it’s a little sad (to me) how he absolves them of responsibility.

      Your call for volunteers is a good one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *