Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 2: “Families”

Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_Let’s continue our online reading of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

In this post we move on to chapter two, simply titled “Families.” As with chapter one I’ll summarize its content, then offer some reflections, followed by questions.

1. Summary

This chapter shifts ground from Ohio to Oregon, using the town of Bend instead of Port Clinton to embody its exploration of family structures in an age of “deeper social fault line[s]” (47).  Again we see a culture riven by growing economic division.

Putnam continues his narrative device of short stories about exemplary characters.  He begins with an elite family and their privileged son, Andrew (50-54).  As with Port Clinton’s Boomer generation, Andrew’s parents rose rapidly in terms of economics and education, compared to their parents.  In turn Andrew and his sister enjoy lives of serious wealth.  At one point we learn that their parents decided to help Lucy’s development in a capital-intensive way:

“She really connected with horseback riding and animals.  So my dad jumped on it and built a barn out at our ranch and Lucy got a horse, and it was just a complete turnaround.” (52)

That ranch is in addition to several other homes, it seems.

In contrast we learn about Kayla and her epically sad family (or families) (54-61), who would certainly not be able to jump on a family issue by erecting buildings on one of their spreads.  Kayla’s story is about people at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Andrew, living a hand to mouth existence marked by desperation and complex family structures.  The story is too complex to summarize here, but it includes early and surprise pregnancies, multiple marriages and their collapses, overcrowding, unemployment, frustrated schooling, depression and despair, and health emergencies.

"Downtown construction in Bend", Oregon

“Downtown construction in Bend”

What forces does Putnam discern within these two very different stories?  The rest of this chapter describes two very different family cultures, themselves distinct from previous generations’ practices of abstinence and shotgun marriages (62).  Lower class families are “fragile”, characterized by shifting family roles and positions (63).

Upper class women delay childbirth “until their late twenties or early thirties”, relying on birth control, while lower class counterparts “typically have their first children in their late teens or early twenties”, using birth control less frequently (64).  The former usually give birth in wedlock, while the latter have children increasingly on their own (66) and are more likely to divorce the husbands they go on to marry (67).

Putnam sees this as a “family breakdown” within the lower one-third of American society, and lays some of the blame at the feet of some Reagan-era politics: “the War on Drugs, ‘three strikes’ sentences, and the sharp increase in incarceration” (76).

This has led to awful conditions for children’s development in that part of American life (77), which leads to the next chapter on parenting.

2. Reflections

In this chapter Putnam begins presenting visualizations he dubs “scissors charts” (64).  These show two contrasting lines, representing one of many social dynamics, that split apart and widen over time, showing changing cultural practices shoved apart by economic division.

This chapter also returns to an earlier theme, that historical divisions based on race are being superceded or exceeded by economic gaps.

In the 1970s, the two-tier family structure was closely correlated with race, but since that time it has become increasingly associated with the parents’ social class more than their race” (72).

Like Putnam’s remembered Port Clinton, Bend has a “tradition of civic friendliness” (47).

The evocation of policy causes (war on drugs, imprisonment) is the first time Our Kids has called out culpable actors.  But Putnam carefully spreads blame around other forces by chapter’s end, assigning it to “a variety of factors, including race, residential segregation, community strength, and schooling” (79).  He seems to balance cultural and economic causes.

3. Questions

Is this two-tier family trend a national one, or more pronounced in certain regions?

Does Putnam’s picture of the new American family match your experience and observations?

Is this transformed family situation primarily a cultural or economic problem?

Last week Valerie, Rolin, and Laura commented that they didn’t see such a clear link between upper class status and higher education achievement.  How does this chapter’s focus on the family make that link stronger or more complicated?

How is the town and character narrative structure doing at this point in the book?

Next week, chapter 2: “Families”.

(Bend construction photo via Wikipedia)

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24 Responses to Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 2: “Families”

  1. valbock says:

    He “seems” to balance economic and cultural causes, yet economic decision-making is behind the reduced investment in schools, residential segregation, and of course, the lack of access to living wage jobs that Kayla’s families suffer.
    Again, I’d argue that residential segregation may well be happening in all regions of our nation, but it is a phenomenon which requires a certain size population to really pull off. Down here in small town Midwestern world, there just are not enough people to create more than “a better side of town”. Everybody shops at the same grocery stores, and unless they send their kids away to school, to the same public or parochial schools. “White flight” means moving to one of the smaller towns in the county, where the public school may be all-white but are economically heterogeneous and are small enough that people know and look after the kids who are known to be facing struggles at home.
    When I was working in social services in the 1990’s, I had the opportunity to talk to T. Berry Brazelton , the noted pediatrician, when he came to our town. He used the term “embattled families” to talk about people like Kayla’s parents. It seemed clear then, and as it does now, that stable employment for parents is the single most influential factor on the welfare of kids. Extended family can and do try to help out, but that falls apart when everybody is “embattled” and living at the survival level. Medium term planning and investment do not happen when it’s not clear how dinner is going to be put on the table.

    • Greetings, Val, and thank you for taking the time to share so many comments, and so quickly.

      Let me respond to a few points:
      “yet economic decision-making is behind the reduced investment in schools, residential segregation, and of course, the lack of access to living wage jobs that Kayla’s families suffer.”
      Agreed. No sign of that yet. I haven’t finished the book, so this is something I’m watching for. In an NPR interview Putnam stressed that there were no villains in his story; maybe that means he won’t draw attention to the deciders behind those decisions.

      “residential segregation may well be happening in all regions of our nation, but it is a phenomenon which requires a certain size population to really pull off.”
      Indeed. Let’s see if he establishes a minimum threshold.
      I wonder, too, if he’s focusing on the growing majority of Americans who live in cities and suburbs. That might be because he’s based in the giant city of Boston, which is one end of Megalopolis. Or because he’s following trends.
      Either way, he makes me look hard at my very tiny town and those nearby.

      “stable employment for parents is the single most influential factor on the welfare of kids.”
      Yes, and Putnam assigns a lot of weight to this. Every poor kid whose life he narrates has parents with sporadic and low-paying jobs.

  2. ellenandjim says:

    I don’t understand what is meant by “two-tiered family.” I am impressed by the factor of money as much as class. They seem almost to mean the same thing: money brings upper class upbringing, education, connections, solutions. Also by the pulling apart of people: families pull apart, and they also have to move so they make no emotional or other connections beyond their nuclear unit or more distanced kinship relationships.

    • Greetings, Ellen and Jim. It’s very good to see you here.

      “two-tiered family” – that’s my shorthand for Putnam’s model of the overall American family, split into two unequal levels by economic difference.

      Well said re: money aggregating and pulling people apart. I suspect we can learn useful lessons by returning to literature from late Victorian/early Edwardian periods.

  3. Joe Murphy says:

    A couple thoughts:

    The closest Ohio city to me (pop. ~16,000) has a “good side” and a “bad side”, and the county (total pop. ~60,000) very clearly does. I can see some of Putnam’s class and culture divides in our area, but yes, let’s definitely keep interrogating it across regions and rural/urban.

    I found myself thinking of the “common knowledge” that money is the most common (or second or third…) cause of marital stress. I don’t remember Putnam citing such a stat, which makes me think that maybe it’s not based on reliable research, but I certainly expected some of the direct lines between economic stress and divorce which he drew.

    I spent a lot of time in this chapter worrying about “the chicken and the egg” nature of many of the findings. Does an economic crisis allow family fragility to become normalized, or does a normalized behavior appear as a more viable solution to an economic problem? There are policy issues related to that question, but they also lead into issues of racism and classism.

    I still don’t like the character narrative parts, but I’m understanding the rhetorical device better in this chapter.

  4. geekymom says:

    Weirdly, I felt a little bit of “blaming the victim” going on. I don’t think he directly did that, but my father in law has a saying, “Poor people have poor ways.” There’s a little judgement in that, of course, but it’s indirect, and I felt the same with some of Putnam’s descriptions. This gets worse in the next chapter, I believe. Again, he expresses the nostalgia for what he calls the Ozzie and Harriet style families. Divorce was uncommon because women couldn’t seek it. Births outside of marriage were uncommon because there was a huge stigma against women who got pregnant. They were sent off or, if families could afford it, got a doctor to “take care of it.” Putnam himself mentions that the 50s were a blip in terms of the “traditional” family structure, and yet, that’s supposed to be our touchpoint and what we are to strive toward.

    I want to note that the 70s, where he notes that divorce explodes, the stigma against sex and unwed mothers “goes away overnight”, is perhaps a result of the women’s movement. And, I would note, that I think many of the issues faced by the poor families he pictures is a result of a lack of policy movements around “women’s issues.” Wage inequality, lack of childcare support, and perhaps, in a state like Ohio, lack of access to health care, specifically abortion, lead to economic issues for these families. Imagine if Pizza Hut had to pay Darleen and let her take 3 months or more off to take care of Kayla–as many other countries do.

    I have no evidence of the above, but it’s what struck me in reading his assessment. It’s interesting that he chose a family that had a father serving as single parent rather than the other way around when having single-mother families is so much more common and so much more economically fragile usually because of the aforementioned issues.

    I don’t completely discount Putnam’s assessment and data, but I feel like it’s only part of the story.

    • Those are subtle points, Laura.

      First, Putnam is certainly not casting the poor as pure victims. There’s definitely an argument that they co-create their terrible social stratum. Later on Putnam will insist that there are no villains – in that mentality, the poor are at least partly to blame for their misfortunes.

      Second, gender is very strange in this book. I’m glad so many of the exemplary characters are women and girls. And yet there seems to be something of the social conservative coming out in the narration, almost a Forrest Gump-style sense that things went badly wrong circa 1965-1975. I’m looking into the final chapter to see if he advocates for a return to tighter divorce laws – or, alternatively, expanded birth control and sex education.

      I haven’t read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012), but so far Our Kids seems to echo that book. From reviews, Murray argues for deep class differences settling in through changes in culture and folkways.

    • Womens rights were handled strangely here, I agree. I watched a video of Hillary Clinton the other day, from 2009, speaking on the link between pregnancy rates and access to reproductive care. Some of the ways these things are connected are not immediately apparent.

  5. geekymom says:

    I think you’re right about the poor not being pure victims. It’s just a kind of knee-jerk reaction I’ve had to phrases here and there.

    I read Murray’s article in the Atlantic? New Yorker? a while back. There’s no doubt that class differences are the biggest issue we face these days. It seems to me that politicians either don’t know how to address it, or are at odds about how, or worse, don’t think it’s an issue.

    • Politicians are well rewarded for not addressing economic inequality. They rely on donations to run, and listen hard to the well-heeled. Hence my sad, frequent use of the term plutocracy.

      Just finished Our Kids, and Putnam takes exquisite care to not challenge the economic arrangements in place.

  6. Rolin Moe says:

    I got busy with a conference and could not jump on this quickly. Having read, my thoughts echo those of the earlier respondents. To add a few points:

    *The normal family sociology here seems limited in scope, casting the post-WWII era as the platonic ideal for families. I hesitate to assign value in the same way; a number of ethnographers and sociologists are reporting that the post-WWII family is the first example of the median family existing in the same way of an aristocratic family (spurred by child labor laws, the effects of industrialization, etc.). Perhaps our adoration of Ozzie and Harriett is its place as the first broadcast ideal of family, but the reality of the situation has more in-depth research at its foundation than Putnam provides here.

    *Divorce-as-culprit is personally troubling. Full Disclosure: myself as the lone exception, one would have to go three generations back from me to find a non-divorced family member. One divorce in the 1980s-90s, two in the 1950s, one in the 1940s, one in the 1920s. Also in the 20s were two very early partner deaths, so I had two great-grandmothers as widows, one divorced, and only one of my four sets of great grandparents were nuclear. My parents had the worst trouble, and they had the most financial resource at the time. My grandparents and great grandparents divorced in a time it was incredibly difficult to do so, and the women especially put themselves at great economic and social risk in doing so, but the alternatives (alcoholism, philandering, abuse) were worse. But because Putnam has built this book upon a lens of the 1950s family, he is able to shape debate and ignore familial struggles before such a time. Thus the Baby Boomer generation becomes the standard rather than a potential outlier in history, or at the he can forego a more nuanced understanding of the history of family as Putnam archetypes.

    *I keep wondering if I am too hard on this book. I do not mean to be, by any means. Perhaps I am reading too much postmodernism right now, but I am more and more frustrated by modern nonfiction engaging the analytic-heavy presumptions of the day to build false idols in the name of selling books. An analysis of research numbers by Putnam would make sense on its own. The personal stories of people across America would also make sense when bound together. The marriage of the two under a thesis of ‘the widening class divide is the culprit’ seems to cast away a great long-term discussion benefit for a quick pop and a klaxon of ‘hey, it’s not race or gender, it’s economics.’ Why can we not have a thesis that suggests economic inequality is one of the (or even the) stressors on our society today, rather than attempts to defeat other arguments in favor of one grand narrative? I read this and I immediately am a resistance reader looking for the holes because I feel like this is selling me on this worldview rather than engaging me in a discussion of his worldview.

    • Great thoughts, Rolin.

      Personally, I’m from a similar family background: parents divorced, one set of grandparents divorced.

      I’m not sure why Putnam goes for such a direct “hey, it’s not race or gender, it’s economics”, but I can hazard a couple of guesses. One is that this is a public book, aimed at decision-makers and voters. A second is, well, I’m an outsider to social science, but I wonder if he sees class as under-studied in comparison to race and gender. That’s definitely the case in the humanities.

      And I am persuaded – not in the absolute terms you describe, but the relative ones. It looks like America has made significant progress in race and especially gender since 1959, but has gone backwards in terms of economics and social class.

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  9. Still behind, but I wanted to point out something I feel I can take with me more than the data – there are several instances in this chapter that demonstrate the importance one person can have in a child’s life. I don’t want to sound trite. If students from lower-income families in particular need people to give them opportunities, to coach them, to mentor them – and if it’s true that this can’t always come from their family situation – those of us working with them in their schools, sports, hobbies, jobs – we can make a big difference.

    Sorry, silver lining, that’s how I roll.

    • No need to apologize, as that’s a key point.
      Putnam agrees, I think, in that he celebrates mentors.
      In the next chapter, on community, he’ll focus a bit more on how people from beyond a family can help a child.

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  12. Vanessa Mendez says:

    What exactly is the argument in this chapter?

  13. luciana says:

    what would be one question you would like to make to Putnam about something in this chapter?

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