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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.