This is a much more complex book than meets the eye.
The format whereby an author establishes via interviews and follows over a period of time the story of a family and explains a social phenomenon via a narrative is very powerful. Last book I read that followed that format was Jonathan Cohn’s “Sick” and I found it brought to life a number of issues regarding healthcare very eloquently.
“Our Kids” is a mix between this “human” format and a veritable torrent of data, chiefly displayed on scissor charts. A scissor chart is a chart with two lines on it: One goes upwards and describes something positive (like regular family dinner) that is happening to the better-educated Americans and the other goes downwards and shows the worse-educated Americans are getting less of it. Or it could be the opposite way round if we are describing unwanted pregnancies. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying)
The author uses the parents’ educational attainment as his definition of “class” for the very simple reason that it correlates well with wealth, while offering the advantage of being trivial to measure, and indisputable, to boot.
By the time you’ve finished the book, you are left with exactly zero doubt that social mobility in America is a distant memory rather than the reality on the ground. Additionally, very strong evidence is offered that the correlation of this phenomenon with race is not the same as causality and mostly describes the past: inequality on all fronts is currently increasing within racial groups, not between them.
On the other hand, while the author purports to have explored the causes of this stagnation across four separate axes (family, parenting, schooling and community) the distinctions between the four are very blurred. He does his best to tease these distinctions out of the multiple examples of families (and extended meta-families) he researches, but, for me at least, the only true result was that by the end of the book, and despite genuine intentions to keep it all in my head, I’d totally lost count of who was who in all the stories.
I hate to say it, but there were too many families here and, financial circumstances aside, they all really came in two categories, namely 1. functional and 2. non-existent.
So there are poor families and single moms, true heroes of this book, that do a tremendous job of keeping their kids on the right path and there are even some kids who are growing up with absent or incarcerated parents who are doing what they can to raise their siblings well and not doing a bad job of it at all, and all this defies the interpretation that there is nothing that can be done.
Yes, there are also clear examples where families with privilege can shield their kids from hazards (example: the ADHD label) the poorer kids are fully exposed to, but you also get to meet poor parents who fully grasp the value of moving neighborhood to get to the better school. Another important observation is that the underprivileged kids are raised with "rules" and are taught to mistrust their neighbor, where the privileged kids are raised with "guidance" and have trust in their neighbor imbued in them by parents who have the time to provide the guidance.
So it’s rather complex and the overlap between the “Parents” chapter, the “Schooling” chapter and the “Families” chapter is so enormous, you get the feeling different kinds of chapters are warranted: chapters relating to the problems and pathologies. In no particular order, I think I took away the following potential issues
1. Increased (and increasing) levels of parent incarceration, particularly minorities
2. Women (not girls) who believe they will not change their financial or economic status through marriage increasingly have and raise children outside of marriage; especially so in neighborhoods where their potential male mates have little to offer.
3. Perhaps as a result, most inequality we observe is fully established by age 5 and is never reversed
4. Some schools are not learning environments
5. There is a lack of counseling regarding the opportunities for higher education for the poor
6. The cost of higher education has ballooned
One chapter, however, stands out, and it’s the “Community” chapter, which could also have been called the “Neighborhood” chapter. This is no coincidence, the author has written a whole book about how our neighborhoods have changed. I came away from reading “Our Kids” feeling that the key to most of the problems, both to how they came about, and hopefully also to how we might one day reverse all these “scissors charts,” lies with our communities.
So, for example, parent incarceration is a phenomenon that occurs on a neighborhood basis, first and foremost. Not fit for purpose schools quite possibly even more so.
The author starts the book in his neighborhood and ends there too. My takeaway from “Our Kids” is that to do right by our children we need to pay attention to the neighborhoods where their future colleagues, friends and partners are growing up. And if we want them to grow up in a world as good as the one we had the privilege to be raised in, we need to make sure that’s every neighborhood, not just the one we happen to live in. Yes, it’s much easier said than done, perhaps it’s even cliche, but this knowledge is a start and it was imparted on me by reading this book.
Thank you Robert Putnam.
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