Harvard professor Robert Putnam's iconic 2000 book "Bowling Alone" traced the atrophy of American civic connectedness since the 1950s, establishing him as one of the most perceptive contemporary critics of American society and culture. The phrase "bowling alone" became a permanent fixture in American political discourse.
Now Putnam's returned to the 1950s, in this case his own Port Clinton, Ohio, high school class of 1959, for a detailed look at the growing gap in opportunities and upbringing that divide children in America today.
"Our Kids" is peppered with what Putnam calls “scissors graphs” that show growing splits between rich and poor kids. This includes ever-sharper geographical separation by neighborhood.
But the emotional separation is just as distinct. Even as more affluent and educated families have taken attentive parenting into uncharted territory, he shows, poor children are often left to their own devices, often while facing debilitating stress. Putnam marshals research showing that these stresses wreak havoc on the minds of young people, leaving them less emotionally stable, less willing to trust, even less able to succeed in work and school.
Putnam contrasts these growing gaps in opportunity to his own upbringing in Port Clinton, Ohio, where students in the class of 1959 were part of an integrated community. Rich and poor children rubbed shoulders, parents had decent jobs, and children had community and extended family support. Much of that shift Putnam traces to a vicious circle of emotional and economic stress, as the collapse of working class economy feeds into dysfunction at home for the poor and poorly educated — dysfunction now no longer buffered by supportive community fabric.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DN: Let’s start with the title of the book.
Putnam: When I was growing up in Port Clinton, Ohio, in 1950s, when adults in the community use the expression “our kids,” they did not mean only their biological kids. They meant all the kids in town. And the proof of that was that long after my sister and I were gone from Port Clinton, they still thought of all the kids in town as “our kids.” Over the past 30 or 40 years, in America in general, the meaning of the term “our kids” has been narrowed. We’ve become more and more focused on our own immediate interests and those of our biological kids. That shriveling, or narrowing, of the term “our kids” is the reason we have allowed that opportunity to develop.
DN: Of course, better than anyone writing in American discourse right now, you are well aware that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted this narrowing.
Putnam: Yes, Tocqueville did predict this narrow individualism. But there is another part of Tocqueville that is also relevant here and that is what he called “enlightened self-interest.” Some people, when you start talking about social mobility, believe that if I help poor kids do better my own kids will do worse. As I say in the book, we are all paying a price for not adequately investing in poor kids in America. I cited a number of economic studies that basically show that our GDP is reduced by about 4 percent every year because of our failure to help these kids. That’s what Tocqueville meant by enlightened self-interest. It’s not personal self-interest for my immediate gain. It’s self-interest seen in the larger framework. And if we follow our enlightened self-interest, as Tocqueville suggests, then it is an easy call: we should be doing more to help poor kids.
DN: You talk a lot about the overwhelming impact of the family environment. You have three sections: family, school and community. But the family seems to be the one that sets the whole thing up for success or failure.
Putnam: That’s put too strong. But yes, I would agree that the family is very important, not all-important, but I would say very important, yes.
DN: It seems clear that you’re playing from behind if you wait until kids get in to school.
Putnam: There is no doubt that kids who are given strong support by their families from birth on have a head start. That’s correct. But it might be too easy to make a jump from what I just said to assuming that the problem of poor kids is somehow a moral failing on the part of their parents. Of course there are working class parents in the book who could be criticized, and are criticized by their own kids. But this is not a book that puts the whole opportunity gap on low-income parents. As I say in the last chapter, one of the risks of focusing close up, as I do, on individual kids and families, is you might miss that in the background of every single story is the economic change that has occurred. So it’s true the families are the immediate focus of the book, but it’s not true that that’s where causation begins and ends.
DN: There’s a buffering effect that seemed to occur in the old economy and communities. Even if a particular kid or parent lacked direction, there was enough buffering in the community around them. Right?
Putnam: That is absolutely correct. That is exactly why I don’t want to focus to be entirely on the family. That broader buffering by people outside the family, or at least outside the immediate family, that was historically really important. Look at the poor kids in Port Clinton, profiled in the book. In my generation, all for the working class kids I described did have strong families. But in every case there was someone outside the family who played a crucial role: a football coach, or a teacher, a minister or an employer.
DN: One of your “scissors graphs” is a “social trust gap,” which shows that 12th graders from different economic backgrounds have extremely different perspectives on trustworthiness of other people. Is there a link between the decline of "buffering" that kids get from their community and rise of the social trust gap?
Putnam: The plummeting social trust among what we used to call working-class kids does not represent some kind of adolescent paranoia. It’s not like they are losing track of reality. They are tracking reality. They live in a less trustworthy world. Mary Sue, one of the kids I profile in the current generation in Port Clinton, recently posted on Facebook, “Love hurts. Trust kills.” That captures the fact that in Mary Sue’s life, tragically there is nobody she can trust.
DN: That makes you want to cry.
Putnam: Yes it does, absolutely. Here’s another way to think about this. All sorts of kids get into trouble, from all races and economic backgrounds. But when a kid from an affluent background gets in trouble, they are surrounded by what we call “airbags” that automatically inflate and help buffer the child from the consequences of whatever dumb thing they’ve done.
This just happened two weeks ago: my wife has a good friend who has a grandchild who attends a college out west. Her friend called her a week ago and said their grandchild had gotten in trouble with law, some kind of drug offense. And the grandmother’s response was, 'It’s terrible, but we’re dealing with it.' His mother is flown out, and they hired him the best lawyer they can find. And my wife told me the story, I said, “Those are airbags inflating around the kid.”
DN: And you think a poor kid in that situation would be out of luck?
Putnam: Yes. Just imagine that this were some poor black kid from the south side of Chicago doing exactly the same dumb thing, but with no airbags. And that same difference in experience is reflected in the trust gap scissors chart. The fundamental characteristic of being poor and young in America today is that you are isolated from everybody: from your family, because of family problems, from schools and churches, from neighborhood organizations and friends. And being isolated as a child means you don’t have people around you giving you advice and helping you out. People from better-off backgrounds, and here we are not talking about Bill Gates, but simply people with college educations, we take these things for granted. We take for granted that if one of our kids get in trouble we’ll help out. And we don’t realize how many kids are growing up without those airbags.