Reading Robert Putnam’s _Our Kids, chapter 5, “Community”

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 chapter we change focus from individual families and schools to broader social networks, addressing “Community”. As with previous chapters I’ll summarize its content, then offer some reflections, followed by questions.

1. Summary

Once again Our Kids changes location, this time removing to the Philadelphia area, in and around the Main Line.  Once more there are two contrasting families located not far from each other.  The book also changes its racial focus to white families.

The wealthy family is very well off.  Marnie and her two daughters live in a world of Ivy League education, “private schools, horseback riding, and an extensive household staff” (194).  Non-economic stresses occur, including divorce and ADHD, but money and supportive people see the women through.  Some of those people are connected to Marnie’s family through weak ties, a major point of this chapter (198).

In contrast Molly and her daughters live far down the socio-economic scale, surrounded by crime, illness, addiction, unplanned and early pregnancies, and social disintegration. The local church is able to help Molly’s family, until it was “closed down for sexual abuse” (201); later, another church was helpful (202-3).  Instead of the elite private schools Marnie’s daughters enjoy, Molly’s children endure public schools staffed by people convinced the girls were “not going to end up being anything” (201).  One, Lisa, takes post-secondary classes, “but that led to no job and left her with a daunting $50,000 student debt.” (204)  Summed up, “Molly tried to save her daughters from alcohol, drugs, and pregnancy, but she was unsuccessful.” (205)

Putnam uses the two stories to illustrate several arguments about how communities function.  First, wealthier and better-educated people tend to have “wider and deeper social networks”, while “less educated Americans have sparser, more redundant social networks, concentrated around their own family.” (207)  Second, the wealthy and better educated “have many more ‘weak ties’, that is, connections to wider, more diverse networks.” (208)  Why does this matter?  The better one’s social networking, the more defenses one has against adversity, and the greater the range of opportunities.

[S]uch ties allow educated, affluent parents and their children to tap a wealth of expertise and support that is simply inaccessible to parents and children who are less well off. (208)

The Chanticleer Garden house, photo by Kristine Paulus

The Chanticleer Garden house, in the Main Line area.


Social networks lead to a third point, access to supportive mentors, both formal and in-.  As you might expect, wealthier people have access to far more mentoring than do the poor (213-216).  This has implications for personal development.

The chapter concludes by tracing economic inequality through neighborhoods (217-223) and religion (223-225).  Our Kids finds neighborhoods increasingly divides by economic gaps, which tend to become self-reinforcing as they determine academic and career achievement.  “The greater the inequality across neighborhoods, the lower the rate of upward social mobility and the greater the opportunity gap.” (223)

Additionally, social cohesion and neighborly mutual aid break down with lower incomes, as trust among people living near each other erodes.  Poor children grow up isolated.  “In a bitter Facebook posting, Mary Sue (an impoverished young woman we met in Port Clinton) expressed a common view among poor kids across the country: ‘Love gets you hurt; trust gets you killed.'” (221)

Religious groups can offer support services to many people, but poor people are decreasing their church attendance.   “If you listen carefully, hymns in American houses of worship are increasingly sung in upper-class accents.” (225)

2. Reflections

We don’t see as many scissors charts as some earlier chapters, but there are some, as on 225.

Putnam again offers skepticism about the internet.  This time he relies on Eszter Hargittai‘s work to demonstrate that wealthier people not only have better technological access, but also a greater set of skills for using the digital world.  “[T]he internet seems more likely to widen the opportunity gap than to close it” (211-2).

3. Questions

Does Putnam’s picture of different levels of social connection in the present day match your experience and observations?

While writing this post, the Baltimore riots occurred (or started).  I found this article showing a day in the life of that city’s wealthy residents.  That’s a fine Putnam pairing.

Amanda Sturgill’s students thought of poverty’s many impacts on kids in schools as “death by 1000 cuts rather than one big blow“.  Is there a similar set of ongoing pressures apparent in the lack of social ties?

Daniel devoted a fine comment – and a career! – to helping build mentoring in Chicago.  What would it take to develop a mentoring system that could account for this deep class bias?

Val Bock teased apart nuances of the forms of obedience taught to poor kids.  How does that kind of training play out in the social world of this chapter?

Jenny Colvin detected a silver lining in this often dark book by noting the positive impact some helpful individuals had on poor kids.  How often can those good encounters happen in the world of this chapter?

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

Previously in our reading:

Next week, the concluding chapter, “What is to be Done?”

(photo by Kristine Paulus)

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6 Responses to Reading Robert Putnam’s _Our Kids, chapter 5, “Community”

  1. True confessions — I grew up on Philadelphia’s Main Line, so I knew all the places mentioned in this chapter. My Dad now lives in a retirement community pretty close to the Chanticleer estate, which Bryan featured as an illustration in his post. Like Bryan, I’m moved by Daniel’s narrative and reflections about his work in mentoring, which speaks to the “soft skills” and social networks focused on in this chapter. I find Putnam’s examples and extrapolations completely believable here, and I think one reason there are fewer “scissor charts” in this chapter is that such “soft” ideas are hard to quantify and define via data. Another item is student/teenager willingness to tap into such networks — for example, at the university where I teach, we are proud of the high percentage of first generation college students we enroll; however, it’s hard to get those students to “work” any sort of campus networks in the way that the entitled/privileged students already know how to do. This is a speech I find myself giving to such students: “you do want to go to this event… You’ll meet the dean and a bunch of active alums…. Well, make sure you shake hands and look them in the eye and say your name loudly and clearly…. ask them about their own experiences here… tell them about classes you really like and why… ask for a card, or ask if you can email them later if you have questions about their field….” These sorts of “obvious” advice items that the privileged students don’t need are completely new ideas to some of my first generation students. Is there some way to organize this sort of mentoring (the way Daniel et al do)? or is it really an organic process, where I have to be on the look out for students who need the shove in the right direction? and what if I’m sick that day or my back hurts?

    • I wonder if Putnam thinks today’s teens in general are less skilled at social networking thanks to their internet socialization. He’s pretty skeptical.

      I defer the mentorship question to Daniel, who knows this stuff.

      Many thanks for sharing your background, Mary!

  2. Just saw this Putnam-relevant article, largely about Baltimore but also race/class/family structure: Sex, Drugs and Poverty in Red and Blue America

  3. Pingback: Concluding Robert Putnam’s _Our Kids_, asking “What is To Be Done?” | Bryan Alexander

  4. One truth that follows me around, even now in the “country club university” where I work, is that an increase in diversity does have a trade-off. It isn’t enough to pull in tighter to the narrowing homogeneous community and hope the new neighbors go away. It isn’t enough, in my academic world, to expect students from different backgrounds and preparations to just “fit in” to the rich white academic culture.

    One of the things Marnie did right despite huge obstacles? She was proactive in seeking help, from changes in education to redirecting her resources to working with people connected to her kids to not let them slip through the cracks. This didn’t prevent her children from using drugs or having sex, Marnie from being diagnosed with MS, her son from dealing with the spectrum; it provided ways to find success despite the obstacles. I would like to see her credit card debt and if that is still a burden because this was one instance where I did not see the “wealthy” example as being free and easy!

    Tying this back to the diversity and change issues, I really believe that communities need to find better ways to approach the realities. You can’t just keep doing the same thing if the community is changing. In my small world of research instruction, we have worked to identify the changes and to seek training so that we are better prepared. I was working with more students on the autism spectrum. Guess what? Normal teaching strategies can have a negative effect on students who need more structure and a different approach. We attended webinars, I read some books, and worked with our Academic Success staff to get a better grasp on approaches I could use. Our international student community skyrocketed (one of those “solutions” to economic slump, bring in full-pay kids from other countries) but we didn’t have a good support framework for them – we are still working towards a better-staffed writing center, but we did attend a summer workshop on working with ESL students that helped enormously. You have to be proactive to grow and change.

    Is this scalable to larger communities? I think it is going to have to be. I have some ideas for this, or maybe one major idea, that I will add to my comment on the final chapter.

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