The American Dream in Crisis
by Robert D. Putnam
Here is a troubling thought: What if fewer and fewer young Americans had the opportunity to avail themselves of a good education, one that could bring them a sense of security, stability, better employment, and hope for a brighter future? Robert D. Putnam, author of the best seller Bowling Alone, has written a new book that suggests this scenario already exists in America, and is likely to cause major changes in America’s social landscape very soon.
Putnam’s book, called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, investigates the growing gap between those with higher levels of education and those with less education. In his fact-filled book, Putnam shows the negative effect this trend has already had on a core ideal of American identity — equality of opportunity. There is very strong grassroots support for the principle of equality of opportunity among Americans as Putnam illustrates by this quote from the book Class War? by Page and Jacobs: “About 95 percent of us endorse the principal that ‘everyone in America should have equal opportunity to get ahead,’ a broad consensus that has barely wavered since opinion surveys began more than half a century ago.” But recent studies show that equality of opportunity and upward mobility are now moving toward a rising inequality. Putnam says, “In the 21st century… surveys have revealed a creeping pessimism about the chances for upward mobility for the next generation, and about whether hard work would really be rewarded.” The inability for some people to be upwardly mobile, Putnam states, is based on a social class distinction; that class distinction can be most simply defined by the word “education.” Here is what Putnam has to say about the use of the words social class in his book, and their connection to education:
“Education, and especially higher education, has become increasingly important for good jobs and higher incomes; in the language of economics, the ‘returns to education’ have increased. While education and income are thus becoming more closely correlated, I generally prefer education as our indicator of social class.”
Putnam sees the separation of people by class distinction based on education to be the biggest barrier and problem to the future success of America’s youth. It is also the reason he wrote Our Kids. He describes the subject of his book in this paragraph: “So, gender and racial biases remain powerful, but as barriers to success they …represent less burdensome obstacles…today than they did in the 1950’s. By contrast, in modern America one barrier loom(s) larger than it did back then: class origins. That nationwide increase in class inequality — how the class-based opportunity gap among young people has widened in recent decades — is the subject of this book.”
Because Putnam is a social scientist you would be right to expect that Our Kids is filled with statistics, graphs, and results of various studies done by highly respected research groups. What you might not expect is that the book is also built around stories of kids. Putnam puts it this way, “Some of us learn from numbers, but more of us learn from stories. Since one central purpose of this book is to enlarge the number of educated Americans who appreciate how the other half lives, we have given pride of place to the life stories of rich kids and poor kids.” The stories invite the reader to connect with and care about the families in the book, and help drive home the idea that these youngsters could indeed be “our kids” – kids from our neighborhoods and zip codes, kids from our church communities and schools.
Putnam also points out that this book presents a notably different approach from conventional sociological research by taking a “direct” rather than a “rearview mirror” look at the families, their lives, parenting, schooling, and communities. From Putnam’s observations in Our Kids, it appears that equality of opportunity for America’s youth is in dire straits. In fact, Putnam says “[social mobility] seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American Dream.”
I appreciate that in the final chapter of Our Kids, titled “What Is To be Done?” Putnam offers a broad range of suggestions to address the problem of unequal opportunity. His ideas run the gamut from changing federal policies to “Close this book…” –visit your local public school and get involved there. He also points out that to ignore unequal opportunity for poor children “violates our deepest religious and moral values, and that “Virtually all religions share a profound commitment to caring for the have-nots.”
Our Kids offers a predominantly negative outlook for America, but it is not totally devoid of positive observations. Here are a few low-cost or no-cost activities presented in the book that may be helpful for lower income families who have goals of helping their children achieve a higher education, and thus social mobility:
- Meals Together “… trends in the family dining tell a revealing story. ‘Youths who ate dinner with their parents at least five times a week,” she writes, ‘they did better across a range of outcomes: they were less likely to smoke, to drink, to have used marijuana, to have been in a serious fight, to have had sex… or to have been suspended from school, and they had higher grade point averages and were more likely to say the planned to go on to college.'” (Many benefits of families sharing meals around a table were also noted in Leonard Sweet’s book From Tablet To Table, reviewed in this column in April of this year. From Tablet To Table)
2.Church Attendance “Compared to their un-churched peers, youth who are involved in a religious organization take tougher courses, gets higher grades and test scores, and are less likely to drop out of high school. Controlling for many other characteristics of the child, her family, and her schooling, a child whose parents attend church regularly is 40 to 50 percent more likely to go on to college than a matched child of non-attenders.”
3.Extracurricular activities “Consistent involvement in extracurricular activities is strongly associated with a variety of positive outcomes during the school years and beyond– even after controlling for family background, cognitive skills, and many other potentially confounding variables… One carefully controlled study, for example, showed that kids consistently involved in extracurricular activities were 70 percent more likely to go to college than kids who were only episodically involved…”
In “Our Kids” Robert Putnam states, “No serious observer doubts that the past 40 years have witnessed an almost unprecedented growth in inequality in America. Ordinary Americans, too, have gradually become aware of rising inequality, though they underestimate the extent of the shift.” (Italics mine)
Putnam’s comments remind me of a quote from Fr. Greg Boyle, pastor of Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, CA, and founder of Homeboy Industries. Father Boyle suggests that we all need to sharpen our observation skills because image bearers of Jesus aren’t necessarily front and center: “Jesus is found in the margins, in the lowly places. Are the margins getting erased because you chose to stand there?” Will the Church, being made aware of the disparity, stand in the education gap and help erase the barriers to higher education for our kids?
What do you think of Putnam’s quote in the paragraph above stating, “Ordinary Americans, too, have gradually become aware of rising inequality, though they underestimate the extent of the shift.” (Italics mine) Have you been aware of the growing inequality in education in America?
Do you think every child should go on to college? Would you ever encourage a child to seek training as a trades person? (plumber, carpenter, electrician, etc.)
How might churches help to close the education gap, and thus erase barriers to upward mobility for our kids?
 Benjamin I. Page and Lawrence R. Jacobs, Class War?: What Amricans Really Think About Economic Innequality, (Chicago: The University of Chicago), 2009, 57-58
 Jane Waldfogel, What Children Need (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 161