Out of the Office: Robert Putnam's Kids

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Robert Putnam is on a mission. You can hear it in his voice when he speaks, even though a good portion of his talk at Notre Dame was spent showing charts and graphs and explaining what they mean.

What they mean is that America faces a crisis, one that’s been brewing for 30 or 40 years. Not only is the gap between rich and poor widening to an alarming, society-fracturing degree, but it is being ever more firmly entrenched in future generations — children already mired in a hope-defying, two-tiered hereditary class system.

One of the primary obstacles, Putnam says, is that too many people — educated, affluent people quite aware of this divide — respond by saying, “It’s not my problem, not my responsibility.” They move to their own suburbs, send their children to their own schools, segregate themselves from the working class and poor, and live as if the shackling discrepancies afflicting those on the other side of the tracks are “their problems, not mine.”

And yet these issues, if further ignored, will create even more severe problems for American society in the years ahead.

Putnam, the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, was speaking April 2nd at the Notre Dame Law School in a large room to a standing-room-only crowd, appealing to their sense of justice and morality as well as the grim practicalities of a society in decline.

Described by The Sunday Times of London as “the most influential academic in the world today,” Putnam was carrying the message of his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

And some of what he had to say was that a century ago public education, especially secondary education, was instrumental in creating a society with leveled playing fields, shared upward mobility and a healthy labor force powering greater productivity.

Over the past few decades, however, the percentage of people living in moderate neighborhoods has significantly dropped. Far more affluent people live in communities of one kind while the poor and working class are sequestered in theirs. That naturally means far less interaction and the mutual benefits that come from such interaction.

It’s not about race, Putnam said, it’s about social class, and the change that has now hit the white working class is the growing prevalence of the single-parent home. Two-thirds of all children in America now live in single-parent homes.

In the past, Putnam explains, ‘‘‘Our kids’ meant all the kids in town. Over the past 30 to 40 years in America, the meaning of ‘our kids’ and our sense of responsibility has shriveled." And that, he says, “is our key moral failure.”

That is not to make a moral judgment about single parents, he cautioned, or to say that single mothers are not doing a good job. It’s just that it’s proven that it’s easier to raise kids if two parents are in the home rather than one. There are simply more human resources in the home. It’s about the time parents spend with their kids.

Putnam divided that time into two categories. One he called “diaper time” — that devoted to a child’s physical upkeep. Studies show that there is no difference here, no trend along class differences, the numbers are essentially identical. But what he called “ Goodnight Moon time” — the nurturing, individual attention, bedtime-story time — is far more available in two-parent homes.

The human brain does not grow like a mushroom, Putnam explained; it grows through human interaction. Children thrive better in an environment of conversation, dialogue with adults, familial mentoring. Putnam likened it to tennis — a kind of serve and response relationship, and said you can clearly see the effects of such learning in brain scans. “The class differences,” he said, “get inside the skin, inside the skull of these kids.” Healthy interaction stimulates growth.

Eating dinner together each night is important; research shows that family dinners are a predictor of how well the children will do in life, Putnam said. Then he cited the working-class, single-parent mother who told him: “I don’t have time for all that ‘How’s your day?’ stuff.”

Eighty-five to 90 percent of children from affluent families participate in extracurriculars. There they learn not only how to dance, paint, perform, play music and sports that enrich their lives, Putnam pointed out, but such experiences enable them to learn “soft skills” that help them succeed in life — and raise their lifetime income.

Twenty to 30 years ago many schools began requiring students to pay fees to participate in various extracurriculars, eliminating the poorest from these opportunities. And as budgetary constraints have hit hard, many public school districts, particularly those in low-income areas, have sliced extracurricular activities. As a result of all this, far fewer lower-class children are now engaged in such beneficial activities than 20 years ago.

With church attendance also in severe decline among the poor and working class, these children encounter fewer adults who might care about them, help instill a sense that adults can be trusted and counted on. “Poor kids in America today, unlike in the past,” said Putnam, “are alone, disconnected from adult institutions and so don’t trust their parents, their neighbors, their schools.”

Kids make mistakes and get into trouble, Putnam continued. If a teen with affluent parents gets into a scrape or gets involved with drugs, the family may hire a lawyer, explore the best treatment facility. Poor kids have fewer safety nets, are less likely to get nurturing support. Rich kids, he said, have “airbags in place” to ease their landing, protect them from certain consequences and turn doing “a dumb thing” into a learning experience.

Affluent kids have access to high quality day care and are more likely to complete college. It’s not simply a matter of entering college, he stressed. Academically challenged rich kids have about the same chance of completing college as the brightest kids from poor backgrounds — about 30 percent.

Studies show that 71 percent of the most talented kids from poor homes who enter college will not graduate, with tuition but a small part of the explanation. It’s more about their cultural and familial backgrounds and the lack of support, guidance and role models. And that amounts to a colossal waste of talent and intelligence.

Putnam uses the marathon analogy to explain the injustice of those who have had to run the whole race and not merely the final 50 yards. Too many of our children are having to go the distance against great odds while others have advantages that tilt the course in their favor, skew the playing field.

In the past, Putnam explains, “‘Our kids’ meant all the kids in town. Over the past 30 to 40 years in America, the meaning of ‘our kids’ and our sense of responsibility has shriveled.” And that, he says, “is our key moral failure,” one with dire economic consequences for American society.

To counter this trend, he says, we should encourage stable, caring families, boost jobs and wages, provide better early childhood education and development for all, invest in public education, increase teacher pay and offer better “on ramps,” such as community colleges and apprenticeships.

But fundamental to all this is to change our sensitivities, to stop thinking about my kids versus their kids, and feeling a greater sense of responsibility for all the nation’s children.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.