Monday, August 03, 2015

A non-judgmental call to action

When Robert D. Putnam talks, policy makers listen (or at least pretend to). In his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the eminent Harvard social scientist is sounding a gentle, reasoned alarm: he doesn't want to point out any upper middle class villains (who tend to read books), but he argues that economic inequality is destroying equality of opportunity and hence the life-chances of too many, perhaps most, of today's young people.

... most Americans have not been greatly worried about [inequality of income and wealth] ... we tend not to begrudge others their success or care how high the socioeconomic ladder is, assuming that everyone has an equal chance to climb it. ... The prospects for the next generation -- that is, whether young people from different backgrounds are, in fact getting onto the ladder at the same place and, given equal merit and energy, are equally likely to scale it -- pose an altogether more momentous problem in our national culture.

The book looks at Putnam's own middle-class upbringing in a white, Rust Belt, Ohio community where most all the adults treated all the town's young people as "our kids." No longer does this impulse prevail. Both class and racial segregation mean that the affluent (still white) stratum of the town has no idea of how poor kids live and no intention of finding out.

Subsequent chapters explore how today's affluent and poor kids inhabit separate and unequal worlds in the kind of families they experience, the sort of parenting they receive, the schooling to which they are exposed, and the communities which create their sense of the adult world. The book is a fluid mix of story and hard data, easy to read, unlikely to be broadly refuted -- and scary as hell. Highly recommended.
Perhaps one third of this small volume is devoted to stories of real kids and their families based on several years of interviews. Putnam gives gracious credit to his doctoral fellow, Jennifer M. Silva, who carried out most of these and helped him sort them into narratives. These stories are central to his project:

... class segregation means that members of the upper middle class are less likely to have firsthand knowledge of the lives of poor kids and thus are unable even to recognize the growing opportunity gap. One reason, in fact, for including the life stories of the young people in this book is to help reduce that perception gap -- to help us all to see, in the words of Jacob Riis, a social reformer of the previous Gilded Age, "how the other half lives."

The inclusion of these narratives also provides Putnam's means of approaching the racial divides that are so central to how our society is structured. In addition to white children and families, there are Black and Latino vignettes. The stories show that the class divides in white society also play out in the families of color that the white people most likely never meet. Those who own and earn more live and raise families more comfortably, regardless of race.

I felt this approach, though presenting some truths that dominant white narratives tend to erase -- yes, upper income Black parents also want their kids to go to good colleges; who knew? -- also left gaps, things unsaid. I'm just a comparatively well-off white lady, but I have been fortunate enough to live and work for a lifetime in a far more economically and racially integrated context than many white U.S. residents. Yet as I read this book, I was haunted by a snippet of a quotation from one of the two Black students Putnam went to high school with back in the 1950s. "Cheryl" went on to college, became a teacher, and, though she agrees their shared town gave her opportunities, does not remember it fondly. As she puts it:

"Your then was not my then, and your now isn't even my now."

I have to wonder whether interviewers of color could have crossed a divide that is not as visible in this book as it in our lives.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

That last paragraph is important. An exasperated young mother involved in our push to get a maniacal hater away from a public park said to us,"Please don't tell us how it used to be. We have to deal with this stuff now."
The damage to children in my opinion is collateral.The real target is women.

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