Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Robert D. Putnam
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015
Weaving statistical analysis with stories from families all across the economic spectrum Mr. Putnam makes a compelling case for the danger that income inequality poses for ‘our kids.’ Drawing on his own experiences growing up in Port Clinton, Ohio, and his classmates he illustrates the growing divide between the haves and have-nots and the impact this inequality has on succeeding generations.
Interspersing interviews with upper class families and not-so-upper class families Putman illustrates differences between families. For example, he cites research that indicates children of well-off parents hear some 19 million more words than children of working-class parents. The statistics he presents clearly illustrate a growing divide in our country.
The interviews and statistics illustrate that the divide is not primarily about racial differences, though racial issues are still prevalent. He notes in particular the continuing neighborhood segregation than has been part of our social fabric for the past half-century. Our neighborhoods, he writes, have a pronounced impact on our kids primarily during infancy and later adolescence.
Of particular interest to me were the comments about religious influences and the role of the public schools in failing to take positive action about the growing inequality. First, using statistics and anecdotal information Mr. Putnam writes, “poor families are generally less involved in religious communities than affluent families.” This impacts childhood development in a variety of ways. Research indicates that young people involved in religious activities are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and they tend to have better academic scores than those children who are not involved in religious activities.
Second, the public school system comes under scrutiny by Mr. Putnam, an educator himself. The issues challenging public schools are complex and often difficult to untangle. Neighborhood sorting, i.e. segregation, continues and creates unequal schools which result in radically different outcomes for students. Putnam writes, “there’s no denying that rich and poor kids in this country attend vastly different schools nowadays.” He notes that experts indicate that school funding has no appreciable impact on student performance. The most important factors in student performance are the things the student brings with him/her into the school: income level, the parenting skill of parents, neighborhood influences, and funding for extra-curricular activities.
The book closes with a chapter devoted to suggesting solutions, or as he writes “a menu of complementary approaches that have some collective promise of changing our current course.” The suggestions make for interesting reading. However, most of them involve at one level or another the redistribution of wealth. He writes, “[S]imply providing relatively small amount of additional cash to porr families can improve the achievements of their kids at school….” Where will that cash come from? He suggests extending the Earned Income Credit and existing child tax credits. But to extend those credits means that someone else has to pick up to slack. Who might that be?
He also suggests that schools make significant investments in student guidance counselors. Given current school budgets, at least in Oregon, that might require letting core subject teachers go in order to hire guidance counselors.
Ultimately as the statistics and anecdotes remind us, the single most influential aspect of student achievement is not the income gap but the ability of parents to spur their kids on to greater achievement and the ability of communities to foster an environment that is more conducive to providing family stability. Indeed, our kids need more than we often are providing.