Our Kids reveals American class inequality – with has all-too-evident parallels here

Robert D Putnam has created an absorbing sketch of the US, drawn from hundreds of interviews with families. 

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Robert D Putnam is that rare creature, a political scientist who has risen above specialism and skilful use of statistics to become the “poet laureate of civil society”. Since the publication in 2000 of Bowling Alone, which charted the weakening of social ties in modern America, he has been courted by civic and religious leaders, including Barack Obama. His latest book, Our Kids, has already inspired passionate essays by Francis Fukuyama, Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt, each, tellingly, finding in Putnam’s research a subtly different message.

Our Kids is an absorbing sketch of the US in the 21st century, built on hundreds of ­interviews with families around the nation (most of which were conducted by Putnam’s research associate Jennifer M Silva) and employing a hefty range of empirical evidence. The book’s starting point is Putnam’s home town, Port Clinton in Ohio, which in the 1950s was a “passable embodiment of the American Dream”. Putnam is careful to acknowledge the racial and sexual prejudices of that era and to note: “Class differences were not absent . . . [but] those differences were muted.” For all that, Port Clinton was, he believes, a “site of extraordinary upward mobility . . . In the breadth and depth of the community support we enjoyed, we were rich, but we didn’t know it.”

Returning home more than half a century later, he finds the town to be a place of stark contrasts, a “poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades”. Our Kids charts the new divide, with the poor struggling to survive economically, educationally and emotionally, while the middle classes lead largely stable, prosperous lives.

Putnam touches on some striking features of the new inequality, from the rapid growth of a black and Latino middle class to how the better-off are more likely to be politically involved than their poor counterparts, who have become disengaged and distrusting. Although crime has fallen to near-record lows, there has been an exponential (and expensive) rise in imprisonment, particularly of black men, with catastrophic implications for the families left behind.

There is even a striking new divide in family relations. Among the middle classes, the 1950s model of stay-at-home mother and wage-earner father has given way to two graduate working parents, both highly involved with their children. Middle-class children enjoy every advantage: access to good schools, a broader range of extra-curricular activities, a wide net of parental contacts and even the social benefits of family dinners. (Dining together is a particular obsession of Putnam’s.) Intensive parenting has become the norm. As one middle-class father in Oregon says, “We ask more questions in a week than my parents probably asked in four years through high school.”

At the other end of the economic scale, low wages, unemployment, insecure housing and welfare cuts have fractured poorer families, often held together by a single parent or grandparent trying to keep the household safe in drug- and crime-ridden areas. Early deprivation lays the foundations for a lifetime of health and psychological problems, diminishing the development of important “executive functions” such as concentration and impulse control.

In the US, the decline of public education has had equally troubling effects. Putnam questions the efficacy of the charter school movement (the equivalent of the UK wave of academies and free schools) in bridging the gap. Exhorting “college for all” not only ignores the need for strong vocational education but often channels poorer students into lower-ranking colleges with higher dropout rates (and saddles them with continuing debt). He also states that equality of resourcing is not enough. The US should plough more resources into poorer districts and schools, something that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has been arguing for years.

For UK readers, the parallel with our situation is easy to see, from the sharp decline of manufacturing, suppressed wages and increasingly segregated towns and cities to rising child poverty and the disingenuous insistence by the right on education as the main route out of poverty. We can recognise that the “ominous bass line” of our culture has been “the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper-class parents”.

Putnam risks conveying too binary a class divide but there is something refreshing in his insistence that society has created a considerably advantaged middle class – far from the gilded 1 per cent but not the tragically overburdened group so pitied by the Daily Mail. His insistence that the relatively well off have lost physical contact and human sympathy with the poor is a crucial insight for the political discussion of our attitudes to welfare, immigration and education.

Profound and unsparing as this book is, Putnam lacks big answers. A kind of deliberate ideological neutrality leaves him strong on description, weak on prescription. One can too easily imagine a David Cameron-type figure using Our Kids to make a daft, “nudge”-like proposal that welfare benefits be contingent on evidence that a claimant’s family eats together nightly.

The book points to the positive effects of public investment and social programmes of earlier decades (including a publicly funded school system) and even to the benefits of channelling cash directly to the poor. Yet Putnam’s final chapter shies away from suggesting any substantive or redistributive measures. Instead, he offers sensible, incremental reforms, from improving the availability of contraception and reducing prison sentences for non-violent crime to increasing investment in early education. Those who are after bolder solutions will need to look elsewhere. 

Melissa Benn is the co-author of The Truth About Our Schools  (Routledge)

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D Putnam is published by Simon & Schuster (400pp, £18.99)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming