Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015) by Robert D. Putnam was the most engrossing book I’ve read in some time. I simply couldn’t put it down due to the sheer number of powerful insights. Putnam believes that countless Americans are being shut out of the American dream due to class-based inequalities.
Looking at America in terms of class is an unusual approach. After all, Americans seem to default to race-based discrimination. Putnam maintains that the similarities among the poor (which he defines as the high school educated)—despite their race—are more significant than the similarities among races. The widening class divisions and economic inequalities are creating a dangerous and unjust society.
His method of proving this hypothesis is brilliant. He first examines his hometown, Port Clinton, by recounting the upward mobility of the poor in the 1960s and 1970s. Putnam uses ethnography to examine specific families. He proves that people of all classes lived near each other, went to the same schools, and were able to raise their family’s status despite their race. As manufacturing jobs left Port Clinton (the main method of the high school educated poor to achieve status and wealth) social divisions became more pronounced. Economic classes began to segregate by neighborhood, schools continued to serve their neighborhoods (and thus became segregated) so that now there are two Port Clintons.
He continues his argument in the next chapter by examining changes to the American family. As childbirth became separated from marriage, family structures became more complicated. However, he points out that in the upper third of American families, a neo-traditional marriage pattern has continued where marriage is valued and child-rearing is the center. Median age of mothers at first birth has continued to rise among high education families, while it has fallen among low education mothers. In addition, the births to unmarried mothers continues to rise among mothers with high school education or less, while it continues to remain low for mother with a B.A. or higher. Other telling charts show the frequency of fathers with high school or less to father nonresident children, children living in single-parent families (rising with lower parental education), and the trend toward mothers with high education working outside of the home. As he argues, “poverty produces family instability, and family instability in turn produces poverty” (74).
Fortunately, Putnam does not blame schools. He argues, however, that these forces have created two different school systems: one serving affluent students well and another hardly serving poor students. Both schools have resources so funding is not the problem. The problem is the former is full of supportive parents and goal-oriented students. These students can navigate the demands of college prep with their loose ties, soft skills, and parental connections. The latter schools have little parental support and often to provide the “wrap-around” services that the poor require. The schools illustrate the “achievement gap” and the lack of the American dream.
The most powerful part of the book (written in 2015) was its indictment of society. Putnam unites the reality of the disaffected poor in American today to totalitarianism.
With succumbing to political nightmares, we might ponder whether the bleak, socially estranged future facing poor kids in America today could have unintended political consequences tomorrow. So quite apart from the danger that the opportunity gap poses to American prosperity, it also undermines our democracy, and perhaps even our political stability. (240)
For educators, the book provides a call to action to provide a transformational education that provides a path for success. It’s not just about college prep—it’s about giving the poor an education that prepares them for a brighter future. It’s about providing those wraparound services and the caring mentorship that will offer the American dream to our young people.