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?
Widening income segregation means that poor children's schools and communities reflect the instability common in their families. Schools' and teachers' attitudes toward achievement (or lack thereof) morph to match their students' orientations toward success and failure. One low-income student laughed when asked about the quality of education at her school, saying, "What's academics?" The networks so essential for success—what Putnam calls "weak ties" between parents and other community members who may be teachers, doctors, lawyers, or pastors—have become much weaker in low-income communities over the past few decades.
The book relies on qualitative and quantitative data to unpack various elements of its thesis. Putnam's research team conducted in-person interviews over two years, ultimately interacting with 107 young adults and their families from 10 cities and towns across the country chosen to represent different local economies and cultures. The researchers sought to create "quartets" of interviews in each location, pairing a workingclass youth and parent with an upper-middle-class youth and parent. The team found their respondents in a variety of ways. Often, they used local connections to suggest contacts. They also describe some "on the ground" recruiting, looking for possible respondents by spending time in teen hangouts. After the interviews, the team followed up with respondents through Facebook.
Each data chapter opens with a quartet of qualitative interview stories and then reports on quantitative data related to the subject matter. The book introduces readers to young adults and parents at five of the research sites, skillfully weaving narratives that reveal deep and complex divides between the higher and lower income families in each city. The interviews and the real-life stories they reveal add great depth and richness to the book. But they also raise methodological questions. Would the stories and patterns look different in other areas of the country? The stories highlighted in the book fit quite neatly with the quantitative data. Did the many interviews left out of the book tell similar tales?
Although the compelling and often heart-wrenching stories that open each chapter are most likely to capture readers' attention, the reviews of quantitative data that follow the vignettes are more impressive. Putnam brings together data from a wide and interdisciplinary array of studies to build a compelling narrative. Over and over again, the data sort into what Putnam calls "scissors charts." Most charts begin around 1960 and show small differences between upper and lower income families that widen with each decade until the two lines look more like an open pair of scissors by 2010. The patterns show low- and high-income Americans moving farther apart on a variety of indicators besides wealth, but Putnam tries to avoid assuming that inequality of outcome indicates inequality of opportunity.
Though his explanation of the dismal state of absolute and relative mobility is heavily qualified, Putnam's warning that measures of social mobility are necessarily three to four decades past their time suggests that things may be even worse than the data show. He contends that our current perception of the American Dream is myopic. When Americans who have climbed the economic ladder reflect on their life progress, they tend to emphasize the difficulties overcome along the way while paying far too little heed to their relative advantage and the helping hands they were offered.
But brains and hard work still matter more than status, even if inherited economic standing plays a bigger role than it used to, right? Putnam introduces much data to suggest that, even though we shouldn't expect all children to climb onto the economic ladder at the same rung, they aren't even getting on with equally sound footing. Consider this hard-hitting statistic: poor kids with high test scores are now less likely to complete college (29 percent) than rich kids with low test scores (30 percent). The case for the dying Dream is compelling indeed, even if the chances of just anyone going from rags to riches were never as good as we would like to think.