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Event Thu Mar 26 2015

Your Kids Are in a Crisis: Robert Putnam's American Dream

"Everybody who went to college raise your hand," said Dr. Robert Putnam from the stage of Cindy Pritzker Auditorium. Without exception, every hand of the 400, white, middle-aged professionals in attendance went up. "You're who I'm talking about when I say 'rich kids,'" Putnam jested. The audience laughed at the recognition that, yes, they were all members of a privileged social strata. Putnam nodded and turned toward the PowerPoint behind him, "Today, I'm going to be talking about inequality."

Our Kids: The American Dream in CrisisDr. Robert Putnam was at the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium Tuesday, March 24, speaking about his most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam is currently the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. In 2006, he was awarded the Skytte Prize, the world's highest accolade for a political scientist, and in 2012, he received the National Humanities Medal, the nation's highest honor for contributions in the humanities.

The premise of Putnam's lecture, which traced the argument he puts forth in Our Kids, was that there was once an American Dream, and that is no longer. Putnam used his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio in the 1950s as a central embodiment of the more expansive story of an exceedingly inequitable America. The economic narratives of Putnam's high school classmates were juxtaposed with those of current Port Clinton residents to illustrate two vastly different America's.

The first America, that of the 1950s, was one that witnessed an unprecedented amount of economic mobility among lower and middle-class families. The second America, that of today, is one of insurmountable inequality and economic stagnation among working-class families. Putnam draws attention to this division at the outset of his book:

My hometown was, in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all kids in town, whatever their background. A half century later, however, life in Port Clinton, Ohio, is a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks.

The solutions that Putnam offers to the crisis that now faces America's kids are less expounded upon than the illustration he gives of a divided nation. The most prominent suspects in America's downturn, as Putnam sees it, are the collapse of the working-class family, the disintegration of community in lower-income neighborhoods, and the economic insecurity that plagues poor families.

On stage, Putnam referred to a power-point graph that showed the phenomenon of declining church attendance among working class kids in recent decades. He used this as an indicator of their social dislocation. "Working class kids are isolated from everybody," Putnam asserted to the audience.

Putnam suggests a reform agenda that focuses on stabilizing the 'traditional family' and investing in poor communities for the purpose of increasing the social-connectedness of today's youth.

"This is not some crazy, Swedish socialism I am talking about," said Putnam as he drew his lecture to a close. The audience laughed. Putnam was right. He is not furthering Swedish socialism. What he is furthering are the worn out ideas of conservative social reform guised in the veils of progressive discourse.

Outlining broken family structure as a pillar of poverty and, consequently, justifying that impoverishment as a result of personal choices and cultural decline is nothing new. In 1965, Patrick Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor, published "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action," in which he argued that single-mother families and rampant poverty in black communities could be traced to a pathology of black culture. Moynihan garnered a sizeable amount of public support behind his argument. The tendency, in America, to condemn disadvantaged populations for giving rise to the circumstances of their own impoverishment has always been visible.

Putnam's focus on family structure and the disintegration of community in lower-class settings rings eerily similar to Moynihan's assertion of blackness as terms for self-sustaining impoverishment. In Our Kids, Putnam wastes no time pointing fingers at the upper tiers of society, instead, the causes of impoverishment start and end with the disadvantaged.

"If these were our kids, we'd be doing something!" said Putnam, attempting to rouse emotion from the crowd. For Putnam, the American dream is in crisis because it no longer exists. For an impoverished America today, the American dream is in crisis because it never did exist. When Robert Putnam was growing up in Port Clinton, Ohio in the 1950s, America operated as an apartheid-state, excluding large segments of the population from the economic and social opportunities available to white men, like Putnam. The social welfare reforms of early to mid-twentieth century that saw the escalation of many working class families into middle-income households benefited almost exclusively the white population in America. A pertinent question is the one that asks, if Dr. Putnam were born into another background, another city, another gender in the 1950s, would he have remained so enamored with the glimmering lights of the American dream?

The lecture ended. People clapped. Putnam had one last thing to say. Over the applause, he added, "Poor kids are not just someone else's kids, they're our kids too." Putnam said this as if "poor kids" was an amorphous concept that was hard to grasp. That he ended with this sentence cast doubt on the idea that he had actually convinced anyone in the audience of a shared paternal responsibility. As the auditorium emptied, I couldn't help but think that, to Putnam, poor kids really were just the result and responsibility of someone else.

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