Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Robert D. Putnam
Simon & Schuster, 2016
400 pp., $17.00
Amy E. Black and Kira Dittman
Mind the Gap?
While Putnam pays too little attention to the efforts churches and individual Christians are already putting forth to fight poverty and strengthen communities, he is right that these efforts have not been enough to squeeze the scissors on his charts. While efficacy is no measure for faithfulness, Christians should accept Putnam's call to even greater social stewardship. Putnam is on point when he notes the power of organized religion to make a difference in American culture, telling Boorstein that "without the voice of faith, it's going to be very hard to push this to the top of the agenda."
Putnam doesn't elaborate on actions and policies to reverse these troubling trends, perhaps because he's seen enough of the data to realize the depth of the problem. We in the church are equally unlikely to find simple fixes, but we can make a difference. As his research poignantly shows, all children and young adults need physical and emotional security, consistent parenting, education that develops mind and soul, and access to meaningful networks of adults who can help them along the way. When any of these essential pieces break or crack, churches and faith-based organizations are well positioned to stand in the gaps.
Faith communities have an essential support role, and they should continue efforts to provide safe places for parents and children to share their struggles and get practical and substantive help. Congregations also foster the meaningful networks so essential for developing life skills.
But churches must also reach beyond their own communities, forging substantive and thick partnerships that cross barriers of socioeconomic status and race. Willingness to bridge social and racial divides has long been a potential yet all too sporadic mark of Christianity, and the growing opportunity gap offers yet another call to serve. The task is daunting, but churches and faith-based organizations are uniquely placed to extend grace and help the needy in ways that could make meaningful differences in the lives of our kids.
Putnam describes what ails American children in evocative prose and with telling quantitative data. If his conclusions are on track—and we have every reason to believe they are not far off—the future for the next generation looks grim. We are quickly moving toward two Americas, one of prosperity and advantage and one of cyclical poverty and despair. Putnam's bleak statistics present the church with a great challenge but also a great opportunity to help reverse these troubling patterns.
Amy E. Black is professor of political science at Wheaton College. She is the editor of Five Views on the Church and Politics (Zondervan). Kira Dittman is a senior political science major at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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