Book cover

The last time there was a serious discussion about poverty in America was during the presidential campaign of 2008 when former United States Senator John Edwards (D-NC) announced his intention to run for the office from the back yard of a home in New Orleans. The city was still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005–the natural disaster that made poverty in America visible again.  Edwards had been identified as a champion for the poor throughout his legal career during which we successfully represented plaintiffs in seemingly unwinnable cases as they fought large corporations, physicians and others, winning multimillion dollar settlements for his clients.  He was also the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law.  During his political career Edwards had proposed that the government should place poor people in middle class neighborhoods through the use of one million housing vouchers.  The idea went nowhere, and once again, poverty fell off America’s agenda.

Fast forward to 2016.  The subject of poverty is barely a blip on the radar. After some initial success during the 1960s War on Poverty, a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program, the overall poverty stubbornly remains at around 15  percent.  Of course it is much higher in communities of color: 28.3 percent for Native Americans, 26.2 percent for African Americans, and 23.5 percent for Hispanics.  Income inequality, the measure of income that goes to the top and bottom the 20 percent of households, is at 16.4 percent.  Even though the recession of 2007 has long since ended, wages for most Americans are flat or declining.  According to PEW Research “real wages–that is, after inflation is taken into account–have been flat or even falling for decades . . .”

Putnam reminds us that everyone measures poverty differently, and the causes are many and varied, as are the people and institutions who are to be blamed.  There is, however, no doubt that the United States has the highest income inequality in the post-industrial, democratic world, and that the face of poverty has changed.  Decreasing poverty amongst the elderly was the biggest success story of the War on Poverty, undoubtedly due to Social Security and Medicaid.  During the Great Society more than 50 percent of the  poor were married households.  Now the majority of the poor are those in their prime working years–18 to 64.  Poverty among blacks has also dropped, but it has increased in Hispanics.  What has risen drastically is poverty among children.  A quarter of America’s children live in households classified by the government as poor.  Among thirty-five industrial countries, the United States has the second highest rate of child poverty as reported by the Children’s Defense Fund. It is this group on which Putnam focuses in Our Kids.

Putnam, the product of Swarthmore, Oxford and Yale, and the author of the critically acclaimed Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, focuses his laser  vision on children in twenty-first century American society.  He is especially interested in two categories:  children of college educated parents, and those who are not.  Putnam has zeroed in on what he and his colleague, Dr. Jennifer M. Silva, a sociology post-doc fellow at Harvard, call the “opportunity gap.”  Children born of college educated parents start with a plethora of advantages while still in the womb, which ensures that their economic and social success far surpasses children in low income families.  Putnam uses his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, which he said was “in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream,” and “a place that offered decent opportunities for all the kids in town, whatever their background,” as the basis of his research. 

According to Putnam, children in Port Clinton were children of the entire community; after all, it takes a village to raise a child.  The city was made up of hard-working fathers and mostly stay-at-home mothers.  People were involved in the civic life of the community, and this spilled over into how children were treated and nourished.  There were solid jobs, good schools and decent housing.  People assumed that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they and subsequent generations could always advance.  Indeed to hear Putnam tell it, his childhood was such a halcyon existence, I was expecting to see June and Ward Cleaver come to the front door to wave Wally and the Beaver off to school. 

Putnam mixes solid social science research with the life stories of the people in his graduating class.  They are all in their seventies now, and most of them have been successful in every phase of their lives.  There are a several issues, though.  All but two of his classmates were white, and although Putnam recognized that there was some discrimination against the few blacks in Port Clinton, he–wrongly, according to the Port Clinton branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which filed dismal reports regarding racism, discrimination and Ku Klux Klan activity during this time period–attributed this to class, not race.  Putnam has forgotten or chosen not to see the extent to which Port Clinton’s whiteness was the product of systemic and systematic racism. During a recent interview, one of the black students in his class told Putnam “your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now.”

Second, I was flunking statistics when I dropped it in graduate school, but even I know that Putnam’s data is skewed because he looked only at the top and bottom 20 percent.  We would, of course, expect to see extremes with this method.

Third, as a black woman and first-generation college student who grew up in a working class neighborhood., I couldn’t help but be skeptical while I was reading.  It isn’t until the comfortable are afflicted that they begin to worry about other people.  At long last demographics, the global economy and a host of other things have hit a huge swath of white America; for the first time in the history of America, there is no longer the guarantee that being white equals being successful.  Since so many of these struggling kids are white, they are now everybody’s responsibility.  Business as usual. 

I think the most interesting point in Our Kids is what his colleague Silva calls “the privatization of risk.”  Today’s communities are no longer interested in our kids, but their kids. All the societal institutions that were available to Putnam’s generation are failing, no longer there or deemed unimportant, so privilege begets privilege.  These same parents and their children see nothing wrong with this.  Indeed, they are most likely to think their success is due to their own hard work and the meritocracy of American society.  As one parent said “If my kids are going to be successful, I don’t think they should have to pay other people who are sitting around doing nothing for their success.”       

Our Kids is a fine book, a good book, a much needed book.  I am troubled, however, by one of Putnam’s comments.  He said that until he began his research, he didn’t know or understand the extent to which it has become so difficult for kids who come from modest or poor families to advance in America.  Since he is from a modest background and has clearly done extraordinarily well, he assumed that today’s children could do the same.  Now he admits “I know better.”  If a trained social scientist had to have a house fall on him before seeing the light, there’s very little hope for everybody else.