We Are All Complicit

Why the American Dream remains elusive for so many of our kids.
Appears in Summer 2015 Issue: Inequalities
June 1 st 2015
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisisby Robert D. Putnam. Simon & Schuster, 2015. 400pp.

No one, it seems, is content with the amount of poverty that exists in the most affluent nation in the world. But there is little agreement about how to best understand and address these socioeconomic problems. Everybody fingers a different culprit. To wit, note the comments of two prominent political figures in the United States. Wisconsin governor and [probable] presidential candidate, Scott Walker, described the United States as "one of the few places left in the world where it doesn't matter what class you were born into, it doesn't matter what your parents did for a living. In America, the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us." Walker's comments implicitly lay the blame for poverty at the feet of those who are poor. After all, social mobility awaits any and all who have the gumption, discipline, and talent to pull themselves up.

At the other end of the spectrum, another presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton, crafts an opposing argument: "The dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach and many Americans understandably feel frustrated, even angry." And what/who is to blame for that economic stagnation? Clinton asserts that it's those already in the penthouse: "And where is it all going? Economists have documented how the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top [...] has risen sharply over the last generation. Some are calling it a throwback to the Gilded Age of the robber barons."

The "haves" have so successfully isolated themselves from the "have-nots," they have lost firsthand knowledge of,and empathy for, how the other half lives.

So here we have two sets of possible suspects: 1) the neo-robber barons, or 2) the poor themselves. How are we to make sense of these opposing views? Are these our only options? Is the problem always them?

Climbing In Place

In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam swings the interrogation lights on us, offering a compelling picture of the social immobility of significant swaths of impoverished children in the United States. In his account, this is the fallout of institutional decline. Putnam admits that before initiating this line of research, he relied on the anecdotal evidence of poor friends from his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio to assume that anyone could climb the socioeconomic ladder. After all, his friend Don had risen from a very modest background to enjoy a successful professional career. Why couldn't other kids today follow the same path? After exhaustive research, Putnam has his answer: The systems and institutions that allowed mobility for his generation have eroded to the point that they undermine poor children's opportunities today.

Putnam's primary question is whether youth from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds have roughly equal life chances and opportunity. Does everyone hit the socioeconomic ladder on the same rung today? On trial here is the very idea of the American Dream—the opportunity for upward mobility, for everyone to climb above their parent's socioeconomic position. But is there still a ladder?

Historically, such a climb was possible. Indeed, from roughly 1910 to the early 1970s the United States saw inequality flattening as incomes trended toward parity. Putnam quotes sociologist Douglas Massey in noting that especially "from 1945 to 1975, under structural arrangements implemented during the New Deal, poverty rates steadily fell, median incomes slightly rose, and inequality progressively dropped, as a rising economic tide lifted all boats." Yet since the mid-1970s, inequality has grown to the point that it severely limits the chances of children born into poor families. In short, mobility has stalled in the United States for almost four decades. For evidence, Putnam notes that while the net worth of college-educated households increased by 47 percent in recent years, during the same era (1989-2013) the net worth of high school-educated households actually fell by 17 percent. Because of its catalytic role in a child's mobility, that decline in parental wealth has been devastating for less well-off kids from less educated homes.

In making his case for the pressing nature of inequality, Putnam judiciously employs the stories of various kids throughout the book to help illustrate the radically different worlds being inhabited by children growing up in the same country and, in some cases, the same cities. The concrete stories of Don, Desmond, Molly, and Lisa (to name a few) demonstrate how family socioeconomic background, parenting habits, schools, and neighbourhoods all collide and collude to produce profoundly divergent opportunities for children. Putnam presents these stories in an effort to appeal to the empathy of the reader. He notes the dissonance of American ideals and the marginalization of impoverished youth: "[T]o ignore these kids violates our deepest religious and moral values" as a nation. A key concern for Putnam is the manner in which the United States has so radically sorted itself into residential extremes. Because the "haves" have so successfully isolated themselves from the "have-nots," they have lost firsthand knowledge of, and empathy for, how the other half lives.

Such economic disparities have led to discrepancies in family structure and a disruption of the traditional working class family. As Putnam summarizes,

The greatly reduced economic prospects experienced by poorer, less educated Americans over these past four decades (greater job instability and declining relative earnings) have made it far more difficult for them to attain and sustain the traditional pattern of marriage. Unemployment, underemployment, and poor economic prospects discourage and undermine stable relationships—that is the nearly universal finding of many studies, both qualitative and quantitative.

Putnam cites a landmark study that followed the lives of 167 white children raised during the Great Depression: "[W]hen their fathers lost jobs and income, their ties with the family eroded, leading to a significant decline in the effectiveness of parental control." He continues, "Eighty years (and several cultural revolutions later) it's still true that hard times deter and destroy marriages." The sad outcome for children today is that they bear the brunt of early childbearing and multi-partnered fertility "in the form of diminished prospects for success in life." Of course, changes in norms related to gender and sex have influenced marriage patterns by delinking procreation from marriage as well. But poor economies and unemployment destabilize even seemingly solid relationships.

Class Segregation

Beyond families and parenting, impoverished children find themselves undermined by their neighbourhoods. Even as concerned urban citizens wring their hands about gentrification, it seems we should first take note of concentrated poverty's chronic chokehold on certain neighbourhoods. Beyond that, it's especially alarming to note how a growing number of neighbourhoods now qualify as "high poverty" (30 percent or more of the population live below the poverty line). One recent study by the City Observatory noted that the number of census tracts in the United States that qualify as "high poverty" almost tripled from 1100 in 1970 to 3100 in 2010. Meanwhile, families with means and mobility tend to sequester themselves in places that allow them to be acutely unaware of these trends. The extreme nature of residential sorting has implications for the communities in which children live and the schools they attend. The "weak ties"—" casual acquaintances in disparate social niches" who offer beneficial connections—enjoyed by children of more affluent neighbourhoods act as "community air bags" that cushion the negative consequences of the drug usage and binge drinking that they engage in at higher rates than their peers in poor neighbourhoods. Such ties also provide a network of informal mentors who help to make kids from privileged backgrounds savvier about how to navigate the socioeconomic ladder.

And it's not just the relationships with adults that have consequence. Putnam finds that "whom you go to school with matters" more than school quality and school resources. That is, most studies exonerate schools themselves from exacerbating the class gap. In fact, school finance has largely been leveled and no longer predicts significant differences in school performance. Rather, we see that children in affluent school districts have parents with more discretionary time to involve themselves in their kids' educations and peers who transmit social norms and create a culture of academic achievement. However, extracurricular involvement also seems to have significant influence on educational attainment. The advent of "pay-to-play" (additional costs for extra curricular opportunities at school) seriously mitigates the ability of children from poor families to fully partake in all available enrichment activities. In the end, it should be noted that a family's socioeconomic status is now more predictive of which eighth graders would graduate from college than their actual test scores. This fact alone belies any notion of a vibrant American Dream.

Rekindling Solidarity

In terms of solutions, Putnam argues that the best scenario for equal opportunity for all of our kids would be a sustained economic revival for low-paid workers. However, being less than optimistic about the chances for that type of revitalization, he argues for the expansion of both the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit while protecting antipoverty programs like food stamps, housing vouchers, and child care support. These programs remain critical because they add dollars to the wallets and purses of poor families. And policy experiments have repeatedly demonstrated how even small amounts of money during preschool and elementary years markedly improve a child's projected lifetime income. As Putnam notes, studies show that an increase of just $3000 in family income during a child's preschool years tends to be associated with a 20 point bump in SAT scores and up to 20 percent higher income as adults. It seems cash still matters.

In addition, Putnam offers a laundry list of remedies: more workplace flexibility for parental leave, instituting a nationwide early childhood education system, ending "pay-toplay," emphasizing vocational training in high schools and community colleges, and investing in poor neighbourhoods. While this catalogue of ideas offers nothing new, one wonders about this society's disposition toward funding all these programs. Putnam does note that historically the United States has been a place where the better-off demonstrated a willingness to underwrite programs that would primarily offer benefit to other people's kids (he cites the High School movement—the decades-long effort that eventually made secondary education nearly universal in this country). The dividends of those investments created and buttressed the institutions that made the United States a world leader in economic productivity and social mobility.

In marked contrast, current priorities and policies—Putnam cites de-unionization, globalization, superstar compensation, shifts in social norms, and post-Reagan economic strategy—effectively write off a huge swath of American kids. A growing wealth gap, combined with a de facto segregation along class lines, seriously inhibits equal access to the resources (quality education, mentors, family stability, amenity-rich institutions, discretionary income) that would allow poor children to climb the socioeconomic ladder. And allowing this perpetuation of poverty has economic costs not just for the poor, but for society as a whole. It reduces productivity and economic output, lowers tax revenues, and inhibits the full capacity of potential workers. "Ignoring the plight of poor kids" he insists, "imposes a substantial economic burden on all of us."

Furthermore, inaction in this regard may even threaten political stability and democratic legitimacy. While the privileged are better organized than ever to press their demands on public officials, the poor have become alienated and disconnected from social institutions. Leaning on Hannah Arendt and sociologist William Kornhauser, Putnam notes the fact that precedents exist in history for such scenarios to lead to high levels of social volatility and extremism.

Though Putnam is careful not to personally identify any villains, it is obvious that as much as anyone benefits from the institutions and structures of the United States, their silence makes them complicit in sawing the rungs for so many kids trying to climb the ladder, kids who did nothing but happen to be born in the wrong place. In other words, when we fail to see the value in social policy investments that benefit communities more broadly, we sabotage the ladders of these children. In the pages of Our Kids, we are all implicated. We do well to remove the saw from our own hands before pointing out the specks of sawdust in the eyes of the poor.


Dr. Mark Mulder, professor of sociology, teaches classes ranging from Church and Society to Urban Sociology to Diversity and Inequality and is director of the urban studies minor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Shades of White Flight (Rutgers University Press) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield). His research finds focus at the intersection of cities and congregations.