Our Kids by Robert Putnam review – stark portrait of trials facing millenials

Our Kids by Robert Putnam review – stark portrait of trials facing millenials
The Guardian, by Nona Willis Aronowitz


The political scientist convincingly describes an America poisoned by inequity of opportunity, but fails to see the political forces behind the disintegration of its communities.


“This is a book without upper-class villains,” writes Robert D Putnam, towards the end of his new book Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis. Given Putnam’s access to higher-ups – including none other than Barack Obama, with whom he shared a public chuckle in 2013 – it’s a clear strategy to get the widest possible audience for his message: opportunity inequality is a far more ominous chasm than the wealth gap, and America’s youth are suffering for it.


The feckless, downwardly mobile, overeducated millennial is absent from these pages. Instead, from a thicket of numbers, analysis, and detailed profiles, Putnam draws out a stark portrait of the differences between the kids of “rich” families, armed with Tiger mothers and extracurriculars, and “poor” ones, who have become increasingly isolated, distrustful and disengaged.


Putnam hits us with heart-sinking, if unsurprising, statistics punctuating this divide: nearly 70% of working-class children living in single-parent households, while upper-class families’ divorce rates have plummeted. The net worth of college-educated households has risen by 47% since 1989, but has fallen by 17% in high-school-educated families.


Putnam presents American schools as neither the enemy nor the cure, but rather as sites that reinforce class divides, despite teachers’ attempts to level the playing field. Though the book doesn’t shy away from race and to a lesser extent gender, Our Kids explains how every corner of modern life, how the very integrity of our democracy, has been poisoned by curtailed economic opportunity.


Putnam admits a few times that restoring working-class wages is “as close to a magic bullet as I can imagine”. But more often than not, Putnam points the finger at the disintegration of the American community, the subject of his most famous book, Bowling Alone. He spends a startling amount of pages writing about family dinners, birth control, Goodnight Moon-reading time, and doomed single-parent households – with no mention of the policies or movements that have addressed or exacerbated these issues. That can get a bit frustrating.


Of course, lack of parental support, adult role models, and affordable daycare are crucial issues. And it’s refreshing for a book of this kind to address the complex dynamic of semi-planned pregnancies in semi-serious relationships, rather than lumping all births out of wedlock in the same category. But such kvetching about the past, while not quite moralistic, comes off as tone-deaf and overly nostalgic for a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights era.


The problem is that Putnam frames these issues as only vaguely political. He’s missing out on a whole swathe of powerful forces in America that have consequences for family life. Nevermind, he implies by his silence, that access to birth control and abortion (not to mention the latter’s enduring social stigma) are actively under attack. Never mind that Nixon vetoed a national daycare system back in 1972, while in 2015 politicians ignore the issue altogether. Never mind that we refuse to consider how the inefficient nuclear family model itself may be contributing to the indifference and class segregation Putnam indicts.


These exclusions made me wish that this subject would have benefited from a younger perspective – Putnam is 74, a Harvard professor who likely never freelanced in his life and admits he was shocked by these findings – and certainly a more imaginative one.


The book’s strongest sections are the profiles of the “kids” from places as diverse as Bend, Oregon, Atlanta, Georgia, and Putnam’s hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio – once an idyllic bootstrapping town (“We were poor, but we didn’t know it,” is how Putnam’s old classmates put it), now a community ravaged by inequity. The vast majority of those interviews were conducted by Jennifer Silva, herself a millennial and first-generation college graduate whose 2013 book, Coming Up Short, vividly chronicled the series of indignities and dead ends that working-class young adults confront in America’s economic and educational mazes.


For Our Kids, she talks to David from Port Clinton, who feels like no adult in his life “gave a shit” about him. She talks to Michelle in Atlanta, whose well-meaning mother supports her the only way she knows how – by praying. She talks to “rich” kids and parents, too, who aren’t born into money but rather, like Putnam, into a era where social mobility was possible. These stories, while favouring extreme cases at the expense of, say, a middle-class barista paying off a five-figure student loan, add texture to Our Kids’ many “scissor charts” illustrating the yawning opportunity gap since the mid-20th century.


Putnam has made clear he intends to take Our Kids to Washington – he’s already mailed a copy to Hillary Clinton – which explains his frustratingly delicate approach to policy prescriptions. Still, there’s a not-so-subtle strain of anti-individualism in the book. Putnam prefers socially-focussed solutions like mentoring and neighbourly brother-keeping to self-made men with stiff upper lips. In an age where anti-vaccinating, gun-toting Americans are familiar faces on the nightly news, Putnam’s love of community is more radical than at first glance it seems.