The Next Book I’ve Got to Read…

Our Kids

Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist who wrote “Bowling Alone” and popularized the concept of “social capital,” has written another book that will surely shape the public conversation: “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” To quote from Bradford Wilcox’s review in the Wall Street Journal:

For the well-educated, the phrase “our kids” may well bring to mind conditions of relative affluence, in which children grow up in a family with two married and attentive (even overattentive) parents; attend high-performing schools; and feel themselves embedded in a network of friends and mentors ready to help them navigate life’s challenges. By contrast, “their kids” — the kids of poor and working class parents — face a world in which social capital is in short supply. As Mr. Putman shows powerfully and poignantly– combining reporting with empirical analysis — the disparity results in too many children in nonaffluent circumstances feeling alone, emotionally stunted and unable to summon the will to climb today’s economic ladder into the middle or upper class. …

We learn that the percentage of children living in single-parent homes has been falling in college-educated circles since the mid-1990s even as it has been rising in homes headed by parents with a high-school diploma or less. Mr. Putnam reports that, by the time they start kindergarten, children from professional families hear 19 million more words than children from working-class families. Even the religious gap between the rich and the poor — traditionally rather narrow — is widening. These days, Mr. Putnam laments, “poor families are generally less involved in religious communities than affluent families,” which is unfortunate, he notes, given that churchgoing is associated with better performance in school, less drinking and drug use, and less delinquency. The class divide in institutional access translate into dramatically different chances that children will flourish later in life.

There aren’t many beliefs that liberals and conservatives share, but one of them is the belief that America should be a place where every child has an opportunity to better his or her life. What divides us is how best to achieve that objective. What Putnam’s book apparently does — and I’ll report back when I read it — is emphasize how cultural traits reinforce the impact of economic disparities. Affluent families don’t just have more money, they have more intact family structures, they provide a cognitively richer environment and they have stronger support networks. In a word, they have greater social capital.

That insight illuminates the debate over the nature of inequality in the United States but hardly settles what to do about it. Conservatives still can argue that we need to focus on creating intact family structures. Liberals still can argue that we need to double down on spending for pre-K education. But as I have argued repeatedly on this blog, we need to understand the nature of poverty before we can hope to fashion “solutions” to it. I’m hopeful that “Our Kids” will clarify the challenges we face.

— JAB 

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6 responses to “The Next Book I’ve Got to Read…”

  1. re: ” There aren’t many beliefs that liberals and conservatives share, but one of them is the belief that America should be a place where every child has an opportunity to better his or her life. What divides us is how best to achieve that objective. ”

    well no. The liberals have a plan and the Conservatives oppose it without a plan of their own.

    Liberals want Head Start and Title 1 (Fed money) and other programs from economically disadvantaged and conservatives say it’s not effective, want to abandon it – and offer no real alternatives except private schools that have no standards and no accountability much less show better performance.

    so Conservatives want to dump what they say does not work and replace with something that is a “concept” with no proven track record – AND no advocacy to measure and demonstrate superior performance – which we DO HAVE with NCLB and Common Core – both things that Conservatives now also oppose.

    I do not see a path for the Conservatives – a genuine alternative. They’ve become anti-public school, anti-public-school teacher without ever once showing how private schools and private school teachers are better.

  2. Yeah, liberals have a plan — basically the same plan they’ve had for 50 years. And look what that’s done for eradicating poverty.

    1. how is that?

      how about you list it out then list out what you’d do instead?

      wouldn’t that be fair?

      I would agree that at least some programs have been misguided and failures but others seem to work – and I’m totally in favor of getting rid of what fails and replacing it with what shows promise – even better a demonstrated record of success – at least somewhere on the face of the earth – as opposed to something never tried – and no attempt at piloting it first.

      so tell me what your alternatives are -that are more than just “ideas”

      My view of Conservatives is that their basic “idea” is that govt should not be doing this – period – because Govt is a failure at it – i.e. every OECD country on the planet is a failure at govt programs..

      you boys have a self-esteem problem – and you rightly earned it and deserve it.

  3. I find the correlation between socio-economic segregation and economic mobility fascinating. We need to encourage more mixed income communities. Urban renewal/public housing destroyed once vibrant communities across the landscape that while racially segregated where more economically integrated (Jackson Ward and Northeast Roanoke). The scars persist from these projects.

  4. if we are honest – we’ll admit that the idea behind busing was to allow all kids access to the same equivalent education – the end of the “separate but equal” lie -and that too, ended up a failure – not only in the south but in the north.

    So we now have this fiction that all neighborhood schools are “equal” and they are without question – not.

    The right leaning folks want to blame performance differences on bad teachers and gene-crippled kids but the reality is that the poorer schools
    get less resources – and less skilled resources.. they are the schools of last resort for new teachers who get whatever the veterans teachers leave and don’t want. It’s a dirty little secret – but it’s the truth. The better schools are essentially 4yr degree prep schools while the poorer schools are decidedly not.

    Even that might be okay perhaps if the poor schools were alternatively pointed to Community Colleges or job training post K12 but they’re often not. They’re not pointed at all to anything – post high school – you graduate and you’re on the street and that’s it. And if you don’t have a workforce grade education -you’re screwed and the taxpayers pick up the entitlement costs.

    so this is not really about not having access to ‘social capital’ near as much as access to a workforce-quality education.

    it’s like those kids – cannot learn.. cannot become educated enough to be trained for a job – all because of a failure of social capital!

    I’ll admit that social capital is how the affluent kids succeed but it’s not the reason that the poor kids fail. that’s just wrong. They fail – because we fail – at providing them with a acceptable proficient basic education upon which they can be equipped to learn a job skill.

    we’re education “deniers” .. we have a see no evil view of this.

    we cannot accept responsibility for it so we blame teachers and we blame lazy parents and we blame the kids.. and their “genes”.

    and we pay for it.. it’s not free.. it costs us all. It would be nifty cool if we could just fix it with some courses on how to succeed at “social capital”.

    again – no rant here.. just plain talk.

  5. The problem we have is not “social capital”in my view. That’s just more blather to evade the real issues.

    and the real issues are (again in my opinion) – that our schools are not designed to teach those who are not bound for 4yr college to be prepared to be trained for a job after high school.

    The quality of the reading and writing required from non-4yr bound kids is even weaker than that required of the college-bound – which are no great shakes either … compared to our European counterparts.

    you don’t need no stinking social capital – to learn to become accomplished and proficient in reading and writing and math – to a level where you can then successfully compete a post K-12 job training course of study – like a nurse or medical technologist or auto mechanic or you name it – a job – one that pays enough for one to afford a place to live, food, and a family – without needing entitlements – a taxpayer.

    Yet we continue this ignorant impetus of our schools to cater to 4-yr kids and leave post-K12 unemployment doom for the others.. especially at the poorer neighborhood schools with larger numbers of economically disadvantaged.

    and… rather than get our minds straight and set ourselves to fixing it

    we play stupid blame games .. blame the teachers.. blame the parents.. blame the genes… and no serious alternative proposals other than non-public voucher schools that have no standards and no performance requirements on the same level that we hold public schools accountable for.

    many of us are simply not serious about the issue – we’re committed to making excuses and blaming…

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