Depressing nonfiction: Robert Putnam's Our Kids
21 April 2015
Mr. CR was right, I've been reading a lot of depressing nonfiction books.
One of them was Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I checked this book out because of its author: Putnam is best known for his 2000 title Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. That book, although I read it so long ago that I can barely remember it, spawned a particularly nerdy reading habit of mine, when reading any kind of investigative, historical, economic, or sociological work of nonfiction. I almost always play "Find Putnam"--or, more specifically, look through a book's text, notes, references, and index for references to Bowling Alone. And you'd be surprised how often you find it; it surely has to be one of the most quoted books of the late twentieth century (which is why I started noticing it and playing the game).
by Robert D. Putnam
So when I saw he had a new book out, I thought I'd try it, although with a title like that you know it certainly isn't going to be a happy read. Putnam explores what he calls the growing "opportunity gap," by which kids from different economic classes face a lifetime of different opportunities in their families, education, community, and personal economic lives. To do this, he relies not only on a ton of research (the notes section in this book is 83 pages long), but primarily on qualitative research and the personal stories (garnered through many personal interviews) that he uses to tell his story. Such as:
"David was a scrawny 18-year-old in jeans and a baseball cap when we first encountered him in a Port Clinton park in 2012. His father had dropped out of high school and tried in vain to make a living as a truck driver, like his own father, but as an adult has been employed only episodically, in odd jobs like landscaping. David apologizes for not being able to tell us more about his father. 'He's in prison,' he explains, 'and I can't ask him.' David's parents separated when David was very little, and his mother moved out, so he can't tell us much about her, either, except to say that she lives in the Port Clinton area. 'All her boyfriends have been nuts,' he says. 'I never really got to see my mom that much. She was never there.'" (p. 27.)
I can't really say that anything I read in this book was a surprise. There's an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that there is increasingly a class-based (perhaps even more than race-based) divergence in not only current living conditions between poor kids and rich kids, but a divergence in future social, educational, and economic mobility. This is particularly disheartening in a country largely built on the principle that if you simply work hard, you can succeed.
The two most disturbing parts of the book (to me) were the paragraph that said "high[test]-scoring poor kids are now slightly less likely (29 percent) to get a college degree than low-scoring rich kids (30 percent)." (p. 190.) That's gross. And this paragraph, in the last section explaining the authors' research methods: "Just the simple act of scheduling an interview with working-class respondents--who lacked reliable transportation, money for gas, stable work hours, and child care--showed us how hard it is to plan for the future amid constant insecurity and uncertainty." (p. 270.)
It was a thought-provoking book (although I don't think it will have the reach that Bowling Alone did), and I was glad that the author concluded with a "What Is to Be Done?" chapter in which he tried to make a few suggestions. But it was sad, and I worry that of course it will only be read by people who already agree with its premise. But there you have it.