A Social Capitalist looks at American Inequality: Robert Putnam’s Our Kids

August 25, 2015

Harvard professor Robert Putnam didn’t create the term “social capital,” but through his influential writings over the past couple of decades he has become the most well-known proponent of how members of society bloom or wilt in relation to their involvement (or lack thereof) in voluntary associations, civic participation, and other non-work, non-family, organizations. The networks that communities create allow for local governance, shared values, and ability to define and work toward common aspirations.

Putnam’s first major work, Making Democracy Work (1994), looked at data from the Italian government’s move to regionalize some functions of administration beginning in the 1970s. Putnam and his co-author made the case that districts which had longer standing traditions of membership in associations – such as fraternal, civic, religious, and recreational – were performing more effectively because citizens had already created stronger local bonds that led to more trust and cooperation in governmental affairs.

Photo by Thomastheo 
Putnam expanded on this research with what became his clarion call in 2000 – Bowling Alone. Putnam used the example of the decline of membership in bowling clubs in America beginning in the later 1960s, and then in free-fall in the 1970s, as a metaphor for the overall decline in civic participation and common social underpinnings in the U.S. that had previously kept communities more tightly-knit. In addition to lower participation in bowling leagues, Putnam weaved an impressive, albeit it sad, wealth of data to show that Americans were also attending church less and less, not joining fraternal organizations, spending less time with neighbors, and that families were not eating as many communal meals. With Americans less connected to family, neighbors, or other members of their community, Putnam’s research showed that the resulting social isolation began to reflect a less empathetic society.

Bowling Alone quickly became a rallying cry for various community activists to consider new ideas to re-invent or save American social capital and civic engagement. Putnam followed up with a sequel of sorts called Better Together which gave a more hopeful note about subsequent attempts around the country to rebuild community. More recently, Putnam returned to the topic of religion in American Grace which analyzed the ability of faith groups to galvanize and sustain communities, but also their role in exclusivity within the public square as opposed to inclusiveness. With Our Kids, Putnam sounds a warning not simply about rising income inequality in American society but, perhaps more troubling, a widening of the gap in opportunities to move up the economic ladder. Putnam’s method in Our Kids is to contrast the prospects and social supports of himself and his fellow members of the 1959 graduating class of the high school in the small-town Middle-America hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, with the young adults of the same town today.

Since the United States took shape without a pre-existing social order, and seemed to offer a limitless frontier with cheap land and a frequently booming economy with the continual arrival of bright, and brash newcomers, Americans have generally believed that if you work hard, play by the rules, and get the education or training you need, success is achievable – perhaps inevitable – no matter someone’s background. Although the 20th century dawned with high levels of income inequality, as well as gaping chasms of social inequality for women and racial and religious minorities, in the period from about 1910 to around 1970 incomes became about as equalized as they ever have in the United States. Some of the major events of that era, such as two world wars and a major economic depression, contributed to the levelling of society psychologically as well as economically. (Our Kids, p. 33) Putnam notes, however, referencing the work of Douglas Massey, that in the period from 1945-1975 “under structural arrangements implemented during the New Deal, poverty rates steadily fell, median incomes consistently rose, and inequality progressively dropped, as a rising economic tide lifted all boats.”

"What after bowling alone?", by Erik Pevernagie, Oil on canvas
Most interesting about this period is that the top 20% of Americans by income increased their earnings approximately 2 ½ percent per year, but the bottom 20% of citizens raised their salaries by about 3 percent per year. Putnam and his classmates in Ohio were part of this seemingly egalitarian era, and his stories and interviews with his fellow students show a marked community spirit and social solidarity summed up by the fact that when townspeople referred to “our kids” in conversation they nearly always meant the kids who resided in town, not their own sons and daughters. (p. 3) Putnam reports that on balance the members of his high school class went on to better livelihoods than their parents experienced (and many of whom had themselves never attended college, or perhaps even finished high school).

Putnam uses his hometown as a bellwether because Port Clinton happens to be representative of overall American demographics of that era, as well as of today. Like many American towns at the time, he came of age when class divisions economically and educationally were narrowing, neighborhoods had a fair socio-economic mix of families, and due to membership in social organizations like churches, sports leagues, and fraternal groups, there were relatively few barriers for interacting through friendship and marriage across class lines.

“Don”, one of Putnam’s classmates, was from a poor but close-knit family. His father worked the equivalent of two full-time jobs, while Don’s mother was a homemaker. The family lacked an automobile or TV at a time when 80% of American households had these goods. Don finished in the top quarter of the class of ’59 and also was the star quarterback of the school’s football team. Although his parents were unfamiliar with higher education, the minister of his church assisted him with an introduction to a college he later attended, and advised him about financial aid. Don graduated from college, and later went to seminary himself. He had a long career as a member of the clergy, married, and had a daughter.

Living only four blocks away from Don was another classmate “Frank”. Frank’s family was wealthy, but he was raised to downplay his social status, mixed with others in his neighborhood, and was required to work during summer vacations while attending high school.

Port Clinton had only two black students in its graduating class that year. While their families did experience occasional racism, and were of very modest means, “Jesse” and “Cheryl” both went on to college with local support and attained advanced degrees. Jesse even defeated a certain Bob Putnam to win the contest for president of the student council while attending the high school. Both of them went into educational careers.

Putnam sums up the experience for many of his fellow graduates by stating that they grew up in two-parent households, in houses that – however plain – were owned by the parents, and lived in neighborhoods in which most people knew each other by name. (p. 7) Port Clinton, like many other communities in the late 1950s and early 1960s offered good, steady jobs at factories, manufacturers, and (locally) mines. Many workers were protected by union benefits, which, in turn, allowed them to make contributions to economic development and the ability to eventually afford “big ticket” items like cars, housing, washing machines and so on that kept families secure. Putnam relates that the conversations he’s had with former classmates suggest that, while they now realize that their “material” conditions might have been lacking in some cases (“we were poor, but didn’t know it”), the intangibles of community engagement, economic security, stable families, intact neighborhoods, and civic and organizational attachments, leads Putnam to suggest that “they were rich, but didn’t know it.” (p. 9)

A good portion of Our Kids looks at how rising income inequality since about the early-to-mid 1970s to the current time has erased the gains of much of the 20th century. Now, in Port Clinton and many other communities, families are fragile, the children that the “Class of ‘59” had aren’t doing as well as their parents, civic engagement is low, and economically secure jobs are few and far between for many Americans. But that’s not the case for all Americans. The families that resemble Frank’s in Port Clinton (and elsewhere) have increasingly separated themselves by developing suburbs, and using the growth of the automotive highway system and a reliance on cars to retain good school districts, parks, privacy, and malls and shopping centers to put space between their kids and the growing ranks of the have-nots.

Port Clinton’s declining fortunes within about a single generation are stark. Putnam mentions that as “late as the 1970s, real wages locally were slightly above the national average…By 2012 the average worker in Ottawa County (Port Clinton is the county seat) had not had a raise for nearly half a century, and is now paid 16% less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather (or grandmother) in the early 1970s.” (p. 20) The loss in economic fortunes is an integral part of the decline in community down to the smallest and most critical of social units – the family. Putnam notes that between 1970 and 2010 in Ottawa County, single-parent households doubled (10% to 20%), divorce rates quintupled, unwed births went from less than 1 in 5 to nearly 2 in 5. In Port Clinton itself, in just a twelve-year span (1978-1990), unwed births went from 9% to about 40%. This fragility and rapid decline of the family is mirrored in the rate of child poverty going from a similar rate of less than 10% to nearly 40% by 2013 (p. 21). 

Port Clinton is a bellwether statistically and culturally for trends in the larger American society. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank looked at one notable aspect of the gap of widening inequality. During the years of 1989-2013, the net worth of U.S. households headed by people with a college education had risen 47% but those headed by folks who had a high school degree or less had actually declined by 17% during those years. [1]

The appealing lakeshore area of Port Clinton is something of a microcosm of the growing class split. In the time since Putnam and some of his classmates have moved from town, it has developed into a place with attractive housing and neighborhoods. The child poverty rate in the Census tract that covers the lakeshore is approximately 1%. The Census tract that begins across the road has a rate of 51%. 

It should be no surprise that people tend to associate with, form friendships among, and marry other people who are like them. As inequality grows, citizens are increasingly likely to live in neighborhoods, attend schools, have careers, and spend their free time in less mixed company than during the middle decades of the 20th century.

Photo by Mike Sharp
The affluence of the “baby boom” generation ushered in an era of individualism that questioned traditions and also brought attention to a variety of social movements. When Americans do marry today, then, there are fewer barriers to interreligious, interracial, and even same sex unions but there has been a lessening of marriage between different economic classes (p. 40). The implication of this clustering of citizens among class lines means that the network of neighbors, role models, and family that “our kids” come into contact with and learn from are increasingly from the same background. 

These formal and informal connections can end up reinforcing the kind of opportunities - or the lack thereof – in important life choices such as career, education, and how one handles personal and family responsibilities. As the gap widens on the margins – growth in the super rich and a rise in who sits at the bottom – it may no longer be enough to expect to succeed from the traditional American mantra of “work hard, get ahead.”

The interviews the book contains with young adults around the country show that the biggest predictor of family dysfunction and poverty is related to class. We meet, for instance “Desmond” and “Elijah,” who are both African-American and from Atlanta. But that’s where their similarities appear to end. Desmond and his married parents lived in a mixed-racial middle-class neighborhood. We learn that his mother and father ferried him to music and sports practices, kept tabs on his grades at school, and made sure he went on to college. At the time we are introduced to Desmond he had begun an internship with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Elijah, meanwhile, had grown up amidst mostly uninvolved parents, and a revolving door of subsequent ne’er-do-well boyfriends of his mother. Lacking good role models and direction he did not do well at school, spent much of his time trying to care for younger siblings, and had been involved in the juvenile justice system for committing an arson. The interviewers make it clear that Elijah has tried to turn his life around and has been getting active in his church, but he currently has only a grocery job and admits that the violence he grew up around has made him “love beating up somebody and making they nose bleed and just hurting them.” (p. 108)

Photo by LeeG7144
In some academic and liberal circles, religious affiliation and church attendance has tended to be seen as comprised of folks who are from poor or less educated households, which might explain their solace in traditions and faiths that a secular society increasingly sees as backward. But while some might not see the benefits of being active in a religious group, this aspect of American society is also becoming stratified by class – and perhaps not in the way critics might think.

The reality is that middle-class and affluent Americans attend church more regularly than their less well-off brethren and sisters, not the other way around. Putnam suggests, as he frequently notes in Bowling Alone and later books, that church membership is an indicator of how well-socialized and engaged one is with their larger community. Citing research in social science field, he relates that religious involvement by youth – usually because involved parents bring them to a place of worship frequently – do better in school on average than their non-attending peers, and are much more likely to attend college later (p. 224). Youth who attend church also report better relationships with parents, tend to be involved in other non-curricular activities, and are less likely to be involved with risky behaviors (i.e. substance abuse, shoplifting, and corrective actions at school).

Looking just at white Americans (although blacks of all social classes generally have higher participation in a church than their fellow Caucasian citizens), during the time of the Evangelical Protestant boom of the 1970s and 80s, college-educated adults stayed relatively the same in terms of weekly attendance at a place of worship (from about 30% to 27%). Non-college adults, on the other hand, curtailed their weekly worship from a similar 30% - 32% down to only 20% - 22%. (p. 225) Whatever mainstream society’s attitudes are toward religion and the tenets that various faiths espouse, it is clear that income gaps are leading some Americans toward the intrinsic benefits church involvement appears to have while others are not benefiting from it – and the separation is growing.

Photo by LeeG7144
Putnam has had experience consulting with a number of recent Presidents (Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) and other heads of state, but, interestingly, does not offer particularly strident political solutions or seek to shame upper-class Americans. Perhaps he prefers to let his research and analysis do the talking and for politicians to develop remedies based on his work. Maybe his humble Midwestern upbringing described throughout the book suggests modesty. But his last chapter, “What Is to Be Done?”(p. 247 – p. 261), is where he does make public policy suggestions, and where reviewers, therefore, may pick the most bones with him.

Putnam might not be comfortable on a soap box, but the widening gap in not just income but the lack of opportunity to move up the ladder greatly concerns him. He likens the situation to the debate on how to address climate change. He believes we must act now before the situation becomes graver. Putnam recommends making more early-childhood investments in poorer communities, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, protecting the funding of anti-poverty programs, better means of providing day care, funding programs that reduce criminal recidivism, and reducing incarceration for non-violent offenses along with more creativity in sentencing.

Putnam also looks at a variety of school reform strands that may show promise. Funding and expanding career and vocational programs could establish a base for non-college educated students and young adults to begin closing the income gap. Expanded access to community college is also discussed.

In his review of Our Kids in The Wall Street Journal, W. Bradford Wilcox, of the National Marriage Project at University of Virginia, agrees with much of Putnam’s analysis, but believes that he does not place enough emphasis on the fact that federal government policy cannot “substitute for homes with two devoted parents and communities replete with PTO moms and soccer dads.” [2] Wilcox’s argument is a familiar one advanced by social traditionalists that the government has encouraged dependency on programs that are instead better solved by lower levels of society like families and charitable groups.

Photo by LeeG7144 
From a different perspective, Jason DeCarle, assessing the book in The New York Times, believes that Putnam might not be concerned enough that as we increasingly become a society of have-a-lots and have-nothings that our democratic institutions are at stake. DeCarle also suggests, as do some other liberal commentators, that perhaps Putnam waxes a little too nostalgic about the society of 1959 in which a number of Americans weren’t able to thrive outside the shadows, however well-adjusted the overall picture looked. [3]
Writing in the London paper The Guardian, Nona Willis Aronowitz also seems concerned that Putnam isn’t advocating for more structural changes in American society. She credits, as do some other commentators, Putnam’s colleague Jennifer Silva, who led many of the interviews contained in Our Kids. Silva also has an excellent book that preceded her collaboration with Putnam called Coming Up Short that profiled the challenges and struggles for working-class millennials in Lowell, Massachusetts and Richmond, Virginia. [4] There may be a feeling that Silva can better voice and provide more context on this issue than the 74-year-old Putnam. Aronowitz seems to miss Putnam’s greatest contribution to the social science literature regarding social capital by actually advocating for community-based solutions. [5]
I believe that Putnam hits the right notes by believing that there is a role for government to play in supplementing, if not replacing, the role that is now not being achieved by civil society and private charity alone. Conversely, social traditions, such as church membership and community engagement, are necessary, even vital, as the glue that keeps communities together. These cannot be replaced by individual action and autonomy. A combination of civic virtue and public investment through judicious allocation of tax dollars are needed to address the gaps that “our kids” – all of the kids – confront, so that they will all, one day, have the opportunities to experience the “American Dream”.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.