Robert D Putnam is that rare creature, a political scientist who has risen above specialism and skilful use of statistics to become the “poet laureate of civil society”. Since the publication in 2000 of Bowling Alone, which charted the weakening of social ties in modern America, he has been courted by civic and religious leaders, including Barack Obama. His latest book, Our Kids, has already inspired passionate essays by Francis Fukuyama, Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt, each, tellingly, finding in Putnam’s research a subtly different message.
Our Kids is an absorbing sketch of the US in the 21st century, built on hundreds of interviews with families around the nation (most of which were conducted by Putnam’s research associate Jennifer M Silva) and employing a hefty range of empirical evidence. The book’s starting point is Putnam’s home town, Port Clinton in Ohio, which in the 1950s was a “passable embodiment of the American Dream”. Putnam is careful to acknowledge the racial and sexual prejudices of that era and to note: “Class differences were not absent . . . [but] those differences were muted.” For all that, Port Clinton was, he believes, a “site of extraordinary upward mobility . . . In the breadth and depth of the community support we enjoyed, we were rich, but we didn’t know it.”
Returning home more than half a century later, he finds the town to be a place of stark contrasts, a “poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades”. Our Kids charts the new divide, with the poor struggling to survive economically, educationally and emotionally, while the middle classes lead largely stable, prosperous lives.
Putnam touches on some striking features of the new inequality, from the rapid growth of a black and Latino middle class to how the better-off are more likely to be politically involved than their poor counterparts, who have become disengaged and distrusting. Although crime has fallen to near-record lows, there has been an exponential (and expensive) rise in imprisonment, particularly of black men, with catastrophic implications for the families left behind.
There is even a striking new divide in family relations. Among the middle classes, the 1950s model of stay-at-home mother and wage-earner father has given way to two graduate working parents, both highly involved with their children. Middle-class children enjoy every advantage: access to good schools, a broader range of extra-curricular activities, a wide net of parental contacts and even the social benefits of family dinners.…