Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Solving the Poor

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Solving the Poor

Article excerpt

Solving the Poor Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis BY ROBERT D. PUTNAM SIMON & SCHUSTER, 4OO PAGES, $28

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books on the television and stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel's historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the Irish critic Finían O'Toole tries to explain the present popularity of a story about Henry VIII's obscure aide-de-camp, Thomas Cromwell. According to O'Toole, viewers identify Cromwell as a "middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world." Like those viewers, Cromwell realizes that the "bourgeois orthodoxies" that were "once considered the ticket to success"-"hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, . . . the steady accumulation of money, and a valuing of stability"- no longer provide an escape from "the power of entrenched privilege."

Robert Putnam, in his new sweeping tour of America's social landscape, echoes O'Toole's indictment. Putnam's book combines ethnographic anecdote and a compendium of social science data to create a compelling portrait of America's widening class divide and growing working-class distress. Although he avoids talk of bourgeois values in favor of bland academic parlance, his message comes through: For those not born to privilege, the goals of selfimprovement and even a safe, stable life are increasingly out of reach. Individuals of so-called lower socioeconomic status are trapped in their current state of declining fortunes. Choices, values, and behavior are beside the point. What matters are the larger forces hemming them in: the barriers, conditions, trends, structures, and lack of resources.

Putnam opens the volume with his 1959 high school class in Port Clinton, Ohio, a thriving, hard-working, civically vibrant group. Almost all were raised in hopeful, well-socialized, orderly twoparent families, and most went on to higher education and good jobs. The contrast with the Port Clinton of today is stark. Residents tend to fall into two camps: those without a college degree (many of whom work only erratically and barely get by) and well-off college graduates.

Separated geographically and by social distance, and rarely intermingling in neighborhoods, church, or school, these groups no longer share common mores or a civic life. The affluent educated have largely field on to conventional habits. Their families are intact and well organized, and they work hard and steadily. They maintain ties to community organizations and religious institutions. For the rest of the population, the traditional mainstays have dissolved. Families are chaotic and fatherless, crime and drugs rampant, employment elusive, and religious, civic, and political apathy rife.

In his remaining chapters, Putnam shows that Port Clinton stands in for the country's direction as a whole. With a focus on the well-being of children, he marshals the numbers on families, parenting, schooling, and community. The pages are peppered with vivid charts, tracing trend lines by class that diverge like a pair of shears. Over the past several decades, the prosperous and educated have thrived, with parents in this group spending ever more time and money on the "concerted cultivation" of their children, who increasingly go on to college and well-paying careers. In contrast, the lives of those at the bottom have steadily deteriorated, with children suffering the consequences.

The result is a widening gap between these groups and their offspring on a range of social indicators. While single-parent families have remained at low levels for the educated, they have exploded for high school graduates. Divorce ticked up for everyone in the 1970s, but leveled off for the affluent while continuing to rise for the rest of the population. Family dinners-a predictor of good outcomes for children-diminished for everyone starting in the 1970s, but steadied at high levels only for the educated. Educational achievement sagged uniformly, but the upper class arrested that decline and recovered. …

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