Since publishing his latest bestselling book, Our Kids, coverage of Professor Robert Putnam’s work has failed to skip a news cycle. Although the latest wave of Putnamania peaked last month following a pair of Georgetown University events (one featuring President Obama), debates surrounding his latest research project have nonetheless continued, especially in conversations exploring the book’s consequences for politics and public policy.
Most of us are familiar with Putnam’s mainstream ideas on “social capital.” Through his books and articles – particularly Bowling Alone – Putnam offers a curious quantitative argument supporting your parents’ claim that, “You know, things just aren’t how they were back then.” While critics have sought to disparage the significance of “social capital,” the thrust of Putnam’s quantitative argument seems to have held up.
In his latest book, Putnam focuses specifically on the issues of intergenerational inequality of opportunity. To complement his quantitative data on parents, schools, family, and community, the book shares a series of powerful vignettes, a product of sophisticated ethnography focusing on children from around the nation. To quote Reihan Salam from his review in last month’s National Review:
One can’t read Our Kids . . . without being deeply moved by the challenges facing the poor children he describes, in a series of vivid portraits drawn from across the country. Putnam’s central observation is that because of rising inequality, the fates of rich and poor children in America are diverging.
Mirroring the ideological diversity of the “solutions” offered by Putnam (for example: on family structure, he suggests revisiting contraception as a possible “answer” for reducing nonmarital birth rates, and on the next page seems to endorse a variant of Tea Party senator Mike Lee’s child tax credit), pundits and partisans of all stripes have pointed to Our Kids as evidence for their previously established positions. On the right, Senator Rick Santorum alluded to Our Kids and its focus on “the breakdown of the American family” as evidence for his pro-family policy positions. On the left, John Peeler at the LA Progressive opined, “Putnam’s perspective has a great deal in common with mainstream American liberalism.”
As is often the case in mainstream social science work, the causal story in Our Kids is cloudy at best. Especially in the chapter on community, the book presents a comprehensive litany of correlative findings but fails to weigh in on why these findings are the case. Despite this theme, one particular comment about religion seems to negate at least one causal hypothesis: “And the crucial ingredient [for children] seems not to be theology but rather involvement in a religious congregation.” Although Putnam footnotes this sentence citing his co-authored book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, the author appears to be stepping outside the bounds of social science and entering the realm of psychology. Who is to say what motivates an individual, especially the individuals within these religious congregations, to act one way or another? From the facts and figures presented in Our Kids, the data should only allow us to weigh in on social scientific claims.
Further, in the anecdotes that the “kids” shared in their ethnographic interviews, religious leaders appeared quite often, playing major roles especially in the lives of those from lower socioeconomic status. In one story, one young girl reflecting on her upbringing remembered, “‘the church was our main support,’ physically protecting [the family] from their drug addled father and allowing them to sleep over at the church for respite.” Now was it the church’s existence or its essence that fostered its position as a main line of support? For Putnam, it appears to be the former.
Yet, despite dismissing theology’s contribution for explaining the stories and data which appear in the text, the penultimate chapter has no problem pointing to theology as the basis of the “moral obligation” thrust upon us by status quo intergenerational inequality. Putnam argues, “[T]o ignore [low socioeconomic] kids violates our deepest religious and moral values.” The evidence? Proverbs 29:7, Mark 10:21-25, Isaiah 3:15, and Pope Francis.
To remain consistent with the prior claim, shouldn’t the text persuade its readers to simply get involved with a congregation? Why must it be a congregation that espouses the values of Proverbs, Mark, Isaiah, and Pope Francis? Surely those values are not “crucial ingredients.”
Or are they?
Nevertheless, Our Kids masterfully weaves stories and data to tell a convincing narrative about the divergent prospects of children for achieving the American Dream. So what should we do about it? Perhaps we can begin with turning to philanthropy.