By MICHAEL GERSON
WASHINGTON — It is rare for a work of sociology to leave readers choking back emotion. Max Weber and Emile Durkheim were not known for writing tearjerkers. But Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” is sociology as story, as tragedy and as an act of social solidarity. It is the culminating work of an academic career characterized by sound judgment and bigheartedness. And the more influence this book gains, the more just and generous our country will become.
Putnam’s goal is to reveal the consequences of inequality on kids. This unfairness is rooted in various, interrelated trends: family instability, community dysfunction and the collapse of the blue-collar economy. The result is a growing, class-related gap in social capital between rich and poor.
But that really does not capture the human reality. Putnam’s case-study approach reveals something important: Children experience these broad social trends mainly as the absence of committed, trustworthy adults in their lives.
Putnam introduces us to David, who was abandoned by his mother and can’t visit his father in prison because David is on probation himself. “I never really had around-the-table family dinners at all,” he says, “so I never got to miss it.”
And to Sophia, who carries the burden of this memory about her mother: “The day after my ninth birthday, she was arrested down the street from here for prostitution. And she never came to see me. She was so close, [but] she chose prostitution and drugs over me.”
This is generally the way the poor children in “Our Kids” describe the forms of inequality featured in Putnam’s charts and graphs: as neglect, isolation, loneliness and broken trust. When the children of wealthier parents get into trouble — as children are wont to do — they are surrounded by a thick network of parents, tutors, counselors, mentors, youth pastors and coaches who minimize the negative consequences and steer them away from future problems. When poor children get in trouble, the air bags do not deploy. Their parents — often just one parent — are distracted by chronic economic stress. Their schools reinforce disadvantage. Their neighborhoods have become atomized, indifferent, drug-ridden and violent.
These trends hit portions of the African-American community earliest and hardest. But they now characterize a large portion of the working class. The outcome is a bifurcation of American life — with upper-class families often practicing a modified form of traditionalism (with two incomes and greater gender equality than in the past) and perhaps a third of Americans caught in a dysfunctional kaleidoscope of loose and temporary family arrangements. Putnam sees no tension between explanations that emphasize family structure and those that emphasize economic stress. “Poverty produces family instability,” he argues, “and family instability in turn produces poverty.”
Putnam is perhaps most controversial for asserting something that many non-social scientists find obvious: The situation for children was better in the past. His most dramatic illustration is taken from his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. Putnam describes the lost world of the 1950s, in which blue-collar jobs were plentiful, two-parent families were the norm, community institutions (from scout troops to church groups) were strong, class mixing was common and social mobility was high. (Amazingly, half of the children of high school dropouts in Port Clinton went to college.)
Then he documents the radiating effects of the collapse of the blue-collar economy: The decay of community institutions. The rapid, disorienting shift in family structures. (Port Clinton had a 9 percent rate of unwed births in 1978, which was half the national average; by 1990, it was about 40 percent, which was twice the national rate.) The growing mental and geographic separation between rich and poor.
Some have accused Putnam of nostalgia, which is unfair. He takes great pains to point out the suffering caused by racism and sexism in the past. But Putnam is clearly sentimental in one way: He loves the American dream of social mobility, humanized by a caring community, and is haunted by its loss. In this way, he has broken down the wall of academic objectivity. He wants to change the “cursed course of our society” and restore the ideals and institutions that protect children from neglect, cruelty and injustice.
The policy proposals Putnam surveys are unavoidably unequal to the problems he diagnoses — patchwork substitutes for stable families, functioning communities and a working blue-collar economy. But Putnam’s commitment to American ideals leaves him more hopeful than his data would dictate. And he invites us to renew that faith.