Books October 2015
A review of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam.
Whoever said “reality has a liberal bias” should set aside a week or two to catch up with today’s literature on social breakdown in America. It took the post-crisis recession to bring the issue to the foreground, but once sociologists dug into the topic of declining working-class living standards, they uncovered a trend stretching back several decades.
The latest landmark release on this trend is Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University. Putnam was an early observer of the shifting working-class landscape (his 2000 entry Bowling Alone arguably planted the seeds for the current crop of studies), and he can hardly be described as unfriendly to the liberal perspective. But inasmuch as Our Kids lets the story of chronic unemployment, out-of-wedlock births, and other working-class misfortunes simply tell itself—that is, inasmuch as Putnam describes unfiltered reality—the conclusions help vindicate social traditionalists’ sorest arguments.
Putnam’s frankness is jarring, but the narrative format he adopts for the study is refreshing. Each chapter is divided into two sections that blur into each other. First the scene is set with character vignettes from Putnam’s memory or interviews that illustrate trends in parenting, schooling, and community. One such short story describes the life of “Stephanie,” who was born into a wrecked Detroit household and slowly scrapped her way to self-respect if not outright prosperity as a store manager and single mother in Atlanta. Most of Putnam’s profiles throughout the book are similar: heartrending but not so baroque as to be unpersuasive. And for every handful of frustrated strivers, he drops in a counterpart from luckier circumstances to show off the flip side of the downward trends in the working class.
The statistics and analysis only come into the picture after each aspect of working-class life has been summed up by flesh-and-bones examples. And even then they play a minor role. This shows restraint on Putnam’s part; he deserves congratulations for resisting the modern tendency to spell out every argument through cherry-picked percentages and accompanying charts. His willingness to look beyond the “macro-trends” in American life, like pre-tax income inequality, enables him to pick up on the subtleties in perspective and lifestyle that actually shape the working-class experience.
Putnam notes that in the 1970s “a new, more kaleidoscopic pattern began to emerge in which childbearing became increasingly disconnected from marriage.” Unlike Charles Murray, who criticized these habits in his 2012 work Coming Apart, Putnam never quite removes his gloves to “tell us how he really feels” when he picks through the details of working-class culture. But he doesn’t apologize for it, either. He lays out each grim fact with a confidence that suggests he acknowledges that weak families and sexual ethics are a cause of the decline rather than a symptom. That’s not an unprecedented claim by any means, but it probably puts Putnam in near-uncharted ground among the Harvard faculty set.
Race is the one dimension wherein Our Kids definitively adds to Murray’s work. Coming Apart focuses on white families and towns, and brackets minorities, to forestall the suggestion that working-class outcomes have been driven down by racism or racial pathology. The technique is effective and Murray scores the point, but Putnam’s inclusion of black and Latino subjects allows him to investigate the advanced stages of social unraveling that white communities haven’t reached.
He walks the reader through the life and times of “Elijah,” a young black man from New Orleans who was untethered from family and any institutional support at age four. Weaving Elijah’s words into his own, Putnam illustrates how the socially gutted inner-city landscape left the young man without a guide or principles to handle “the different transitions he had to go through.” Putnam’s portrait of today’s black underclass demonstrates starker crime and deprivation than Murray’s narrow focus allowed, and amounts to a never-quite-spoken prophecy about the future of the white working class if current trends continue. The sting of the book’s title hits as one ponders the prophecy. The hardships and headaches that most Americans have always associated with the children of others, and specifically black others, are increasingly borne by “our kids.”
Nearly every sociological treatise ends with a proposed solution or two from the author, and Putnam steps up with a forty-page conclusion titled “What Is to Be Done?” He kicks off his plan for reviving the working class by commending Pope Francis for reminding us that caring for the poor is an urgent moral imperative. Amen, but that’s the easy part. It’s no surprise that the trouble begins as Putnam turns from letting the story of social decay tell itself to trying to dream up his own happy ending.
The first actionable point of his plan, for example, is advertising and subsidizing “long-acting reversible contraceptives” such as IUDs. He touts “changing the norm from childbearing by default to childbearing by design” as the answer to broken low-income homes. He continues by noting that IUDs are twenty times more effective than the pill at reducing unwanted pregnancies. But he never reckons with the fact that abortion, marketed to the underclass as another means of “planned parenthood,” has done little to slow their growth.
Putnam’s other recommendations fall into the same trap. Throughout the meat of Our Kids he wisely portrays the gap between the classes as having grown out of a lack of habits and self-understanding. But his solutions all presume that struggling Americans only need more resources and options to move past their hardships. The tax credits, day cares, and paid maternity leave he proposes would put today’s working-class kids closer to the old starting line, but only the subtle practices and the outlook he frames in the lives of his successful “counterpart” characters will help them run the race.
As the political theorist Yuval Levin described, the most remarkable part of America’s flourishing mid-twentieth century wasn’t our expanding social liberties or abundant wealth but the fact that we produced individuals with the character to use their liberty and wealth rather well, on every rung of the class ladder. The formula for character of this sort is self-restraint and commitment; much easier to describe than tax policy but much trickier to pull off on a massive scale. Putnam is naturally tempted to seek shortcuts to a working-class restoration. But if he allows his own facts and personalities to speak for themselves, he’ll hear them calling for something grander and more thoroughgoing than what policy can provide.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 2, on page 79
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