Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Our Kids, by Robert Putnam

Our kids.  There was a time, if you listen to certain people among your parents' and grandparents' generations, when everyone viewed all kids as our kids.  As Robert Putnam documents in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, American kids are becoming more and more separated by class.  Whereas in the past children of white collar and blue collar workers lived in the same neighborhoods, and their families were not widely separated socially or economically, children today are less likely to live near and go to school with children of other classes.

The growing separation of classes has led to increasing divergence in a variety of educational measures, civic involvement, health measures and other areas.  Interestingly, this phenomenon was formerly tied to race, but now is a measure of class.  (Putnam chiefly uses parents' education as shorthand for class.)

Putnam does a nice job of laying out the trends.  His series of "scissors graphs" demonstrate the diverging prospects and outcomes for upper and lower class children.  His conclusions aren't terribly hopeful, and his solutions won't satisfy many.  With decreasing social mobility and shrinking equality of opportunity, Putnam calls for additional cash credits to families of young children.  He acknowledges that school quality is chiefly determined by the backgrounds of the children who attend those schools, yet calls for more money for poorer schools.

Putnam concludes with a challenge for "religious communities . . .  to become seized of the immorality of the opportunity gap" and aggressively mentor children from lower class backgrounds.  Ideally, this would be a tremendous boost for those kids.  But based on the statistics he provides about mentoring, the impact has little potential to be very strong.

The scenario Putnam outlines in Our Kids is discouraging (and a little frightening).  I was not left with much hope for turning around the trends he describes.  Residential segregation is at the core, and that's not going anywhere.  Any parents who are financially able will insure that their children go to the best schools, exacerbating school segregation.  I hate to sound pessimistic.  I guess I am.  They are all our kids.  But it takes every parent looking out for their own kids to provide the best opportunities for their kids.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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