The Kids Are Coming Apart

Analysis: Sociologists Robert Putnam, Charles Murray discuss the decline of opportunity in America

June 23, 2015

Think of an upper-middle class high-school boy who just got his driver’s license. One day after lacrosse practice John decides to go to his friend’s house instead of straight home. While there, his friend offers him some weed. He hasn’t smoked before, but he’s heard it is relatively safe and won’t hurt him, so he smokes a joint with his buddy.

On the way home, a police officer pulls John over for erratic driving. The cop sees his bloodshot eyes and smells the marijuana on his clothes, and he arrests John for driving under the influence.

All young people make mistakes, some more serious, and some less so, than John, our fictional example. But the results of those experiences are vastly different for youths in different classes, according to Robert Putnam and Charles Murray, two sociologists who spoke about opportunity in America at an event at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Monday.

"If you’re coming from an affluent family and your child does some dumb thing … when that happens, instantly the airbags inflate to protect the kid from the consequences and allow that child to learn from their mistake," Putnam, a professor at Harvard and author of the new book Our Kids, said during his prepared remarks.

But, he continued, "if a poor kid does exactly the same thing—no airbags. It can ruin a poor kid’s life, an event that otherwise would be a learning experience."

The difference in social support between kids of different backgrounds is just one area where the rich and poor in America are diverging, a subject which Murray, a fellow at AEI, investigated in his book, Coming Apart, which was published in 2012

According to Putnam, the amount of money that parents invest in supplementary activities for their children—sports, camp, tutoring and more—has risen tremendously among the wealthy, to about $7,000 on average, while remaining stagnant for the poor. Rich parents spend 45 minutes more time with their children than poor parents do—while there used to be no such gap several decades ago. Rich kids participate in extracurricular activities much more than poor ones—often because poor families struggle to meet the costs of the various activities, which can be as much as $400 each year.

Putnam also pointed to less measurable—yet no less important—indicators. "Poor kids in America are increasingly isolated, alone. They don’t trust anybody." He cited the example of a young woman that he met in Ohio during his research for Our Kids. This kid recently wrote on Facebook, "love hurts, trust kills."

And by rich and poor, Putnam doesn’t mean the very top and very bottom. By "rich" Putnam means the upper third, families where the heads have college degrees, and by "poor" he means the lower third, characterized by a failure to complete high school.

These findings are discussed extensively in Our Kids, the impetus for this event, as well as in Coming Apart. Both books are full of what Putnam calls "scissor graphs," which show a growing gap in various indicators between the rich and poor. And they make very similar arguments about what is happening to American society: America is dividing along class lines between the rich and poor, leading to declining opportunity for those at the bottom.

Murray praised Putnam’s book at the beginning of his comments, and he noted Putnam’s vivid narrative portraits of people from different social and economic walks of life. "If you work professionally in this field…you gotta read this," Murray said.

William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard who spoke at the event, similarly praised Putnam’s book. He noted that racial segregation continues to hamper the life outcomes of poor black children, although class has displaced race as the greatest barrier to opportunity.

"Today, poor black families have fewer middle class neighbors than they had in 1970," Wilson said. The only critique Wilson made of Putnam’s book is that it doesn’t focus enough on the continuing impact of racial segregation on the lives of minorities.

Putnam and Murray come from different sides of the political spectrum—Putnam from the left and Murray from the right—and they offered very different prescriptions for what to do about the state of affairs they both described.

Still, there remained points of agreement. Murray often argues that the rich should preach what they practice, Putnam said, meaning they should preach stable marriages and delayed gratification and the like—a suggestion that Putnam also endorsed. And while many on the left argue that income inequality leads to many of these divergences, Putnam noted, the economic bifurcation actually lagged behind the other more sociological indicators, such as associational memberships or philanthropy. He even asserted that the sociological indicators could cause the economic inequality—although he didn’t discuss this point for want of time.

Putnam suggested a series of "incrementalist" policies, such as early child education, community colleges, apprenticeships, tutoring and mentoring programs, and coaching for parents. His most far-reaching suggestion was aimed at the culture rather than the machines of public policy. Communities should start to take responsibility for all children, with the rich willingly paying for the education of the poor. The advent of public high schools early in the 20th century was an example of how communities took on this communal responsibility, and communities have to regain this spirit.

"I don’t want us to become like Sweden … I want us to become like America. We’ve done this before, and we can do this again," Putnam said.

Murray was more pessimistic.

"Everything, in my view, that Bob recommends could be implemented full bore with big budgets far beyond any reasonable hope—and little will change in the long term," he said.

Murray argued, citing a study published in the journal Nature, that an individual’s life outcome is more dependent on genetics and random events than on the parts of life that can be intentionally changed. Public policy programs, however, focus on the parts of life that are obviously alterable.

"Bob [Putnam] has already referred to my take-away from all this with the ways in which we really need a civic great awakening," Murray said. "However, I gotta say that the fact is, civic great awakenings have about as much chance of transforming what’s going on as a full implementation of Bob’s purple programs does."

Instead, Murray predicted that America will remain "permanently segregated into social classes that no longer share the common bonds that once made this country so exceptional."

So who is right? Is Murray’s dour pessimism correct, or is Putnam’s upbeat assessment more on the mark?

It is obviously impossible to say. The trends do not look good. Many children are certainly caught in vicious cycles of poverty begetting hardships of all kinds—material, social, and emotional. Poor communities and families are falling apart. As they do, the airbags that give kids the opportunities to learn and grow disappear.

The ultimate solution cannot come from public policy programs alone. If the problem is greater segregation of the classes, simply giving the poor benefits of various sorts will not promote the interactions of different kinds of people, whatever other purely economic benefits these programs may have. Moreover, government-enforced mixed-income housing isn’t scalable across the whole country.

Putnam’s idea of a greater civic spirit has its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about how voluntary associations of citizens mark American civic life. Americans traditionally got together to solve problems instead of looking to some central agency. And while this associational nature had degraded somewhat—Putnam himself documented this in his book Bowling Alone—it is part of America’s heritage, and it would be wrong to assert that American life is totally different than it was two centuries ago.

The American model of society, one open and free and with people looking to themselves and their communities for solutions rather than to the federal government, has the capacity to make voluntary, community-based action occur. It is possible that American society, and not the government, could make opportunity the defining characteristic of American life once again.