Poor Kids Devastated by Isolation From Family, Church, Community, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam Says (CP Interview 1/2)

Book cover for Robert Putnam's "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," (2015). | (Photo: Simon & Schuster)

The American dream, that anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough, is increasingly out of reach for the children of poor families, Robert Putnam wrote in his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. In an interview with The Christian Post, Putnam shared that these children, about one-third of all kids in the United States, are distrustful of everyone due to their isolation from family, churches and their community.

"Love hurts, trust kills," one of the kids who he interviewed for the book posted on Facebook, Putnam said in a Friday phone interview. "If you think what it means to grow up in an environment where you think you can't trust anybody, that's a devastating kind of environment to grow up in."

Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and is also the author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010) with Notre Dame professor David Campbell, and the bestselling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).

In reviews, Our Kids has often been compared to Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). Both authors hold different ideological perspectives — Murray describes himself as libertarian while Putnam describes himself as communitarian — yet they came to similar conclusions about the plight of the working class in the United States today.

In this part one of his CP interview, Putnam describes the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor kids and responds to the comparisons with Murray. In part two, Putnam talks about the important role that churches and religious groups can play in addressing the opportunity gap, and responds to a review by professor Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and explains his views on school choice.

Here is a transcript, lightly edited for length, of part one of that interview:

CP: What is the main take away you hope readers get from your book?

Robert Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. | (Photo: Martha Stewart)

Putnam: That there is an opportunity gap that has opened up over the last 30 years in America between rich kids and poor kids, that basically violates the American dream, the idea that everybody should have a decent chance at success in life regardless of their family background.

The growing gap shows up in many different indicators of children's well-being. The stability of their families — kids coming from college educated homes are overwhelmingly likely to be living in two-parent families, whereas kids growing up in high school educated homes, that's over one-third of the American population, two-thirds of them now are growing up in single parent families.

The growing gap shows up in the amount of time and money that parents invest in their children. In terms of money, the gap has grown very rapidly over the years so that the average kid coming from a college educated home has spent on him or her roughly seven times as much in dollars, on things like summer camp and piano lessons and high quality day care, and so on.

It shows up in the amount of time that parents can spend with their kids, in what we call "Goodnight Moon time," that is the amount of time parents spend playing with the kids, reading with them or whatever. As recently as 1975 there wasn't any social class difference in that, but now kids coming from college educated homes get 45 minutes a day more time with mom and dad. The latest brain science makes clear that has very serious long term consequences for the kids.

It shows up in the quality of the schools kids are attending. It shows up in the amount of education kids complete. It shows up in test scores that kids have. Test scores in college educated homes, the upper third, are rising, whereas they are not for kids coming form high school educated homes.

And it shows up in the amount of support that kids get from their communities. So that, for example, church attendance is down for all kids in America, that's a more general trend, but it's down much more rapidly for working class kids, so working class kids are quite unlikely to be regular church goers, so the kids are increasingly detached from the support of a religious community, and other communities, too, I'm using that as just one example.

The bottom line is, kids coming from what we used to call the working class are increasingly isolated from everybody — from their parents, because they likely have only one parent in the home, from their school, from neighbors, from community organizations, from church, and they lack the kind of support that all kids used to get, from adults in their environment. So these kids, remember I'm not just talking about homeless kids, I'm talking about the lower third in society, they're very skeptical and suspicious of everybody.

A young woman we talked to from a working class background in my own hometown, a tiny little town in Ohio, recently posted on Facebook, "love hurts, trust kills." If you think what it means to grow up in an environment where you think you can't trust anybody, that's a devastating kind of environment to grow up in.

CP: This book has drawn many comparison's to Charles Murray's Coming Apart. Murray is libertarian, you're liberal, but you've drawn some similar conclusions about poverty, working class families and class differences. What do you think of the comparison?

Putnam: Actually, that's not completely true. Charles' book does not focus on kids at all. Kids are not part of his story. He's talking about the adults, but I mean to be focusing on kids and the effects of these growing gaps on kids. His is a valuable book. I'm not being critical of it. It just doesn't happen to focus on the kids. Whereas I'm relentlessly focusing on the effects on kids.

But secondly, he is a little agnostic about what caused the problem and he definitely does not think we can do anything to fix it, except maybe he thinks upper class people should preach at lower class people to get their act together. I'm much more inclined to think that there are both cultural and structural, or economic, reasons for this trend.

But it's true, it's striking that both a libertarian and a communitarian, like me, agree. We certainly agree about the basic facts of the collapse of the working class family. That we certainly agree on. Frankly, neither of us discovered that. That's been in the literature. But it's an important development.

It's not the only thing. It would be wrong to think that the only thing that has happened is the collapse of the working class family.

It's also true that there's a growing social segregation in America, where comfortable people are living more and more around other comfortable people. When I say comfortable, or rich, I mean people of college educations like me. People from college educated backgrounds and relatively affluent people are more and more living around other affluent people and poor people are more and more living around other poor people. That has powerful consequences for whom we know and for who our kids know, and for the kinds of schools they go to.

So it is certainly true that the cultural change that [Murray] emphasizes is an important factor. I think it is not the only thing that is going on. It's a perfect storm from the point of view of these poor families.

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