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Live in Washington and your inbox is flooded with invitations from think tanks to go to events. Most of these can, of course, be safely ignored. But when the American Enterprise Institute (where I once worked) offered a debate between Charles Murray and Robert Putnam, of course I had to go. After all, one of the crucial debates of our time is what (if anything) government should do to help the poor climb the social ladder. Murray and Putnam are two of the deepest thinkers about poverty that our country has, and understanding the differences between them should sharpen the knowledge of anyone interested in good ways to fight poverty.

The room was, of course, packed, although it seemed to me that about a third of the room were summer interns. While I was glad I went, the debate didn’t seem as energetic as I’d expected. The reason is that there isn’t as much distance ideologically between Robert Putnam and Charles Murray as you would expect—and the news is that it is Putnam, not Murray, who has moved to the right.

The audience saw an all-Harvard affair on stage, since Putnam is a Harvard public policy professor and Murray is a Harvard alumnus who had just returned from his fiftieth anniversary reunion where, he noted, there were a dismaying number of smart men in his class marrying smarter women.

The third panelist, William Julius Wilson, is a distinguished Harvard sociologist, but he had very little to say and said nothing about Charles Murray’s ideas. Ninety percent of the talk was Putnam and Murray debating each other.

Murray enthusiastically recommended buying Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, particularly for the extensive field research (conducted by Jennifer Silva) interviewing rich and poor children about what their lives are like. If Charles Murray recommends a book, of course you buy it, even though Putnam did not sign books afterwards (the cad!). So as an owner of Our Kids, I know that Putnam has been hoovering grants, since his donors include the Spencer, Kellogg, William T. Grant, Casey, and Gates foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

As one might expect, some of what Putnam recommends is what his donors want, namely throwing government money at the poor. If you want government to subsidize universal education for four year olds, Putnam is your man. But Putnam also says he is a “purple” thinker rather than a man of the left, and if I heard him correctly, he has largely conceded the conservatives’ argument that the reason poor people stay poor is because of cultural matters. Putnam thus does not disagree with conservatives who argue that the poor are largely condemned to their fate because of single-parent households with overstressed mothers raising children unable to cope with the demands of school, the workplace, and of life.

Putnam comes to his conclusions through the back door of high school. Remember that his most famous book, Bowling Alone, is about how people are more isolated than they used to be because rather than spend their evenings in a bowling league they sit at home by themselves and watch TV. In his current book, Putnam notes that high schools these days charge students several hundred dollars to play high school football or be in a band. The middle-class and the rich eat the expenses, but poor parents can’t afford the fees. As a result, lower-class children don’t get the team-building lessons that come from being in a sport or other after-school activities, and they end up being bitter, resentful, alone, and unwilling to trust anybody or anything, which are very bad attitudes with which to begin adulthood.

Putnam and Murray have debated before, and Putnam repeatedly said, “Charles, you say you’re a libertarian, and libertarians don’t do solutions.” Murray’s response, as befits the junior author of The Bell Curve, was to bring up the issue of genetics. Murray cited an article, which he said was in Nature but, thanks to Washington Free Beacon reporter Andrew Evans, I now know was in Nature Genetics, that Murray said argued that only around 20 percent of success in life was due to non-genetic factors. (Unfortunately, the article is only available for a fairly hefty rental fee.)

Now the issue of how much of intelligence is inherited was and is a very live third rail, but Murray defused it this way: any parent, he says, knows that no matter how hard you try, children don’t turn out the way you want them to. If parents, he said, couldn’t control what their children became, what makes you think schools can?

I didn’t get a chance to ask a question, but if I did, it would be this: suppose you were giving a million dollars a year to help poor children succeed. What should you spend your money on?

Private scholarship programs still seem to me to be a good bet, because you’re helping individual applicants whose parents have skin in the game by coming up with half the costs of tuition at a good private school.

But it also seems to me that the issue Putnam raises is something that should be a worthy use of philanthropic dollars. Why wouldn’t the National Football League or Nike or Under Armour pay some of those $500 football fees? Aren’t there donors who really enjoyed band classes who would want today’s teenagers to have the experiences they had?

As I left the debate, I realized that people who want to understand the problems of poverty in our country need to read both Charles Murray and Robert Putnam very carefully.

P.S. I reviewed Charles Murray’s Coming Apart for the Pope Center.  I also recommend a 2012 article by Harvard Crimson editorial writer Elizabeth C. Bloom, where she asked both Putnam and Murray how graduating seniors like herself could “stave off the decline in America’s social capital.” The response accurately describes Putnam’s fading idealism and Murray’s bracing realism.


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