Thursday, August 6, 2015

Putnam: Social Capital and Children

If Robert Putnam had never done a thing in his life except write Bowling Alone, he would have done more than enough to justify his taking up space on Earth. The work looks at the collapse and rebuilding of the American community, pairing sharp insight with exhaustive and clever collected data. It is required reading. But Putnam has just released another work entitled Our Kids, and in its own way it is just as important as his earlier work.

The book sets out to answer a particular question:

Do youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds in fact have roughly equal life chances, and has that changed in recent decades?

Well, spoiler alert: the answers are “no” and “yes,” respectively. It’s the details and the explanations that make Putnam’s book worth reading. You should read the whole thing, because I am not going to cover everything. But let me give you some tidbits while I hit the broad strokes.


Income inequality has risen within each major racial/ethnic group between 1967 and 2011. In other words, rich blacks have pulled away from poor blacks. The Great Recession stymied the growing gap briefly, but recovery has brought more of the same.


When considering the debate about social mobility, it’s useful to remember that “conventional indicators” are generally three or four decades out of date.


For those who believe that the fabled welfare mother is behind the growth in single-mom parenting, Putnam points out that there is no correlation between growing unmarried birth rates and “the ebb and flow of mothers on welfare.”


Healthy infant brain development requires connecting with caring, consistent adults.

Putnam underlines this in a number of ways. The studies make quite a pile—stress affects brain development, contingent reciprocity interactions (an informal interaction) builds brain power, stable or unstable environment shapes the child’s view of how the world works, etc etc etc etc etc.

Good parenting takes time and can take money. Stress trickles down from stressed parents worried about life to children. In a fairly stunning chart, Putnam shows that higher-education parents favor parenting focused on building self-reliance, while low-education parents focus on obedience. Professional parents give far more encouragements, while welfare parents offer more discouragements.

This has to change how the child interacts with the world. But Putnam’s researchers have collected hundreds and hundreds of stories, and these stories show repeatedly the “linkage from economic hardship to stressed parenting to bad outcomes for kids.”

But let’s go to the central concept of the book.


We could look at Putnam’s main concept as a web of support or an account filled with social capital. Either way, it is the vast networks of connections, the deep pockets of social networking, that give the children on the high side of the great divide their advantage (and it is a divide-- time after time Putnam shows a scissor-shaped gap between the upper and lower groups, with no middle in the gulf between).

Both in data and anecdote, Putnam hammers home the same concept. Troubles happen to the rich and the poor. But when the children of the rich find trouble, the rich have access to resources, from formal programs that require money to access to have enough contacts to know a guy who knows a guy who handles that sort of thing.

The poor have no such network. In fact, Putnam cites studies that suggest that the poor have a much smaller, more redundant network-- their friends and their family and the people they hang out with are all the same people.

For a while, the American solution was essentially to provide the poor with a government created network. The wealthy have their own network-- from dance lessons to math tutoring to treatment for that little cough that may or may not Be Something, they know someone to call. The poor have no such network. Putnam talks about "weak ties," connections to wider, more diverse networks. As a wealthier person, you may not be friends with a doctor, but you undoubtedly know somebody who does have access to that world. The poor have few "weak ties" to help with jobs or college entrance or health issues.

This has huge practical implications for children. It has implications for what interests and skills they can pursue; does a parent know who to call if Chris is interested in hockey or dance or helping in a veterinarian office? Sure, there are programs to pluck students with outstanding promise from poverty, but that is kind of the point-- wealthy children don't have to show outstanding promise to pursue any of those things.

But it also has huge implications for world view. Putnam repeatedly talks about interview subjects whose socio-economic background has shaped their view of the world. For the wealthy, it's a big wide wonderful world where you can trust others and things generally work out well no matter what. For the poor, it's a hard world where you can trust very few people. Putnam reminded me of the Rochester Baby Lab do-over of the famed marshmallow experiment, a study that suggested that grit and patience have a lot more to do with environmental factors than any innate character possessed (or not) by the humans in question.


Putnam devotes a whole chapter of the book to schooling, but out of the detail and anecdote that fills the chapter, one basic point emerges-- schools don't create the gap between the poor and the wealthy, but they certainly do reinforce it.

Putnam sees that class gap as stronger than any racial gap, and says it's already well-established before students enter school.

In part he argues that the gaps we find in the education system are a function of residential sorting, that Americans have spent the last several decades sorting themselves into neighborhoods based on class and income-- well, let's be honest-- wealthier folks have spent the past few decades moving away from poor folks and leaving them alone in their poor neighborhoods. It dovetails with Warren Buffet's observation that if the rich couldn't opt out of public schools, we'd have better public schools. But Americans have opted out of living next door to Those People, and so that sorting and segregation is reflected in geographically-based public schools. "There's no denying that rich and poor kids in this country attend vastly different schools nowadays, which seems hard to square with the notion that schools are innocent bystanders in the growing youth class gap."

School finance and parent involvement are two of the major factors that Putnam cites. And while Putnam kind of sort of likes some of the idea of charter schools, I would point him back at those two factors. Charters don't fix finance, and they make parent involvement more difficult except for those parents who would have been involved even if their kid was attending school in a van down by the river. When you create a New Orleans style system, you end up with poor parents who somehow have to coordinate with parents who live in other neighborhoods and who must find a way to get cross town to their non-neighborhood school.

Putnam sees extracurricular activities as a way to build social capital and essential life skills. But of course, schools for lower class students, with budgets slashed and resources at a minimum, are least likely to have any such activities.


Putnam opens the book with a question he wants to answer it. Toward the end, he makes his main point (which he subtly signals by writing "this is the point of this book." Talking about parents who were themselves upwardly mobilized...

Though it might seem natural to label them "self-made," in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from modest backgrounds. They grew up in an era when public education and community supports for kids from all backgrounds managed to boost a significant number of people up the ladder-- in Bend, Beverly Hills, New York, Port Clinton, and even South Central LA. Those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well.

Emphasis mine.

It's a grim picture that Putnam paints. Wealthier Americans have withdrawn physically from poorer Americans, moving out of the neighborhoods (or moving back to them once Those People have been pushed out). But more recently, we've also withdraw financially, insisting that our tax dollars not go to provide services for Those People as well. We don't want to pay for their health care or their education. Even the charter school bargain says essentially, "Okay, we'll pay to educate a few of them. You know, the good ones." (That's my interpretation, not Putnam's).

Putnam suggests the solution for schools is to move either money, kids or teachers. But moving kids does not strengthen the community or the people who live in it. He acknowledges that charters don't really seem to help. And he also notes that if you want better teachers to work in poorer schools "the most obvious way to attract more and better teachers to such demanding work is to improve the conditions of their employment."

But I have to say that, for the most part, the "what can we do about it" portion of the book is pretty weak (example: go tell your local school district to do away with "pay for play" policies).

That's okay. Putnam brings a lot of clarity to these issues, and that's no small thing. The title points the way-- at the root of much of this is that we tend to have a narrow definition of who "our children" are, and we need to broaden that vision. At the very least, this book can serve as a valuable addition to the conversation, and I recommend you give it a read.

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