Alan Wolfe teaches political science at Boston College and is the author of “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.”
By Robert D. Putnam
Simon & Schuster.
386 pp. $28
In the late 1950s, Robert Putnam, the distinguished social scientist whose “Bowling Alone” (2000) has become one of the most influential books of our time, lost his campaign for the presidency of his high school class in Port Clinton, Ohio. The victor was one of the few African Americans in the school, a star athlete who, after a stint as a utility worker, eventually rose through the Los Angeles school system to the rank of principal and then regional director. By any account, his career represented a considerable accomplishment. But it pales in comparison with that of Putnam, who now holds the Peter and Isabel Malkin professorship in public policy at Harvard University.
What determines where different individuals end up in life? And have those determinants changed over time? These are the questions Putnam asks in his new book, “Our Kids,” and his answers, documented through portraits of specific people as well as analyses of reams of data on social and economic mobility, reveal what may be the single greatest scandal of contemporary American life: the extraordinary role that social class has come to play in our patterns of achievement, accompanied by a hardening of class boundaries over the past half-century that makes it exceptionally difficult for those from classes below to rise to classes above.
I know about Putnam’s limitations as a high school politician because his first chapter revisits those years to examine what has happened to Port Clinton and its inhabitants over the past half-century. Putnam was fortunate to have been born there because the town was a safe and relatively stress-free place in the 1950s — and because, located in a swing state that often holds the balance of power in presidential elections, it was and is representative of the nation as a whole. We have heard a great deal about the hollowing out (and, in too few cases, the rebirth) of Midwestern cities. Putnam’s treatment of his home town is especially poignant; we can almost hear the shutting of the factory gates as recessions set in and can picture the new subdivisions arising along Lake Erie to provide vacation homes for the wealthy as prosperity returns.
It is more difficult to portray an entire nation than one of its smaller parts, however, and as Putnam moves on, much of the intimacy of the first chapter is lost. To be sure, he includes additional vignettes illustrating the lives of real people in places ranging from Bend, Ore., to Atlanta. These vignettes, however, are presented didactically: They are there to make larger points and not because they are especially interesting in themselves. Moreover, there are too many of them, and before long one cannot recall where “Thad” grew up or what problem faced “Simone.” Putnam’s great strength is his ability to explain the meaning of charts and tables in clear language, and the more he focuses on what data rather than people tell us, the better for his book.
What, then, do we learn? It ought to be fairly obvious that children who have parents with deep resources will have more advantages in life than those who do not. Far more important is the emphasis Putnam places on the crisis that awaits us as deprived children grow up and have children of their own. As with global warming, action must be taken now to head off future disruptions, he convincingly argues. But despite his good intentions, as well as his search for policies that can cross ideological lines, it is impossible to imagine that a political system unable to repair its physical infrastructure will begin paying attention to its social and cultural one.
Even if we had a functioning government, moreover, we would need a frank discussion of the two major fault lines in American life: race and class. Putnam’s treatment foreshadows how difficult this will be. To demonstrate the seriousness of the problem we face, Putnam focuses on the early years of a person’s life: the roles that family, schools and neighborhood play in social development. Some children are raised with two biological parents, others with one, and all too many with none. One of the latter, dubbed by Putnam “Elijah,” has had an especially rough life: beaten by his father after the son was jailed for arson, thrown out of the house by his mother because of drinking and drugs, and unable to escape the lure of the streets. “Desmond” had a radically different life: His parents moved to get him into a better school, encouraged him to read and were there for him when he was accepted into a good college. Both these young men, moreover, spent part of their youth in Atlanta; they ended up in radically different places because one had support from elders and the other did not.
“Elijah” and “Desmond” are both black, which seems to take race out of the picture: Being raised by caring parents trumps race in determining achievement. But that is true only at the level of anecdote. If it is true that, as Putnam writes, “early life experiences get under your skin in a most powerful way,” it is also nonetheless true that the color of your skin correlates with what happens early in your life. There can be no doubt that Putnam desperately wants to help all children, regardless of their race, to achieve their full capabilities. But as he documents the negative role that neglect plays in very early child development, one cannot help thinking that poor black children raised in urban ghettos face obstacles more demanding than any other children in America. “Statistically speaking,” Putnam writes, “Elijah is living on borrowed time.” So are a disproportionate number of those who share his blackness.
Putnam wants reform, but can any realizable reform overcome the depths of the gap between rich and poor, or black and white, documented by the research he cites? He writes at one point that the importance of early child development “does not mean that later interventions are useless, still less that the class-based disparities are God-given or pre-determined, but it does suggest the importance of focusing on early child development.” But, one wants to respond, either early child development is determinative or it is not. If it is, later intervention, as right-wing observers such as Charles Murray will quickly point out, will hardly ever work. If it is not, class and racial disparities are less deep than Putnam suggests. Read Putnam’s prose, and the message is hopeful. Read his data, and it is the opposite.
I doubt that “Our Kids” will have the same impact as “Bowling Alone,” in part because we tend to pay less attention to the plight of the poor than to the unhappiness of the middle class. But it should. For all its flaws, Putman’s new book is an eye-opener. When serious political candidates maintain that there are no classes in America, Putnam shows us the reality — and it is anything but reassuring.