A few years ago I read Robert Putnam's great book, Bowling Alone. I thought it accurately described our current culture and climate well before the onslaught of social media and the idea that that it somehow replaces or is superior to the idea of the generations before of community. The community that included the dreaded Church or some form of worship, the bowling alley, the service groups that included the Shriners, the Nile club the Chamber of Commerce and the varying offshoots that were for women. Yes they were sexist, they were or are conservative and likely racist but people change, the ideas that founded them can evolve but we don't see the idea of actually preserving anything of our past other than suburbs and segregated schools. Funny how that perseveres.
I work in the public school sector. I have no desire to ever return to full time teaching as it is such a villainous profession. I like kids, I like them a lot. Even kids who act like pains in the asses are usually angry for a reason, and it takes time to know what that is and what can be done to at least put it on a back burner for another day so the pot does not explode.
We have no idea how to help the multitude of kids who come through the doors, damaged, broken, hungry, scared and without the support mechanisms that those deigned good enough smart enough and rich enough to fulfill the American Myth whoops I mean dream of Meritocracy.
I was in a History class reviewing the basic concepts of how free market and the idea of Capitalism came to be. The lesson included a touch upon Marxist theories on economics and what class structure is with regards to the historical aspects our economic structure. It was lofty and I thought too complex, too broad and too disconnected from the current climate. But this is all part of the new Common Core. (I haven't quite recovered from the reading lesson on the Harlem Renaissance with kids who could not spell Renaissance let alone understand this historically significant period). The idea that a mixed group of inner city kids in a school in a very mixed neighborhood, to the east wealthy lake front homes (doubtful any residents of them sent their kids there) to the west and south our racially diverse immigrant hood are sharing the same intellectual interests and skill set is ludicrious. Diversity does not mean anything when you have not seperate but not equal either. And I am all for stimulating kids by having high expectations but you need to get them to the startling line first and for many they are not even close.
Then up the street is the highly acclaimed high school that parents are sure wil make all the difference to their kids getting into the right schools as rated by the bullshit U.S. News lists. The are equally divided only even more physically so by classes and floors but the school to compensate for the obvious racist impression it provides, have come up with second level honor classes that are to elevate the students and challenge them. Frankly I see little differnce in the students neither academically nor behaviorally. You have kids who "test well" and are arrogant, priveleged and secure with the idea that this is all just a stepping stone, some minority faces, largely Asian, heavily vested and supervised and then the few Black and Latino kids. There is one scandal after another at this supposedly acclaimed school. I can no longer deal with it so I choose to avoid it. Why subject myself to what I know is just institutional racism and white privlege. This school rather than brag about its acceptances to college every year puts up a rejection wall where the kids put their rejection letters. I have no idea what that means nor would I bother to ask.
The public schools in this area are trying to be divided by two of the Representatives of the district. I literally live 3 blocks away from this school and have seen shootings out front and by the gas station next door, a beat down by a Cop to a young girl who was not a student there but picking a friend up. I have seen homeless panhandle at the adjacent Starbucks and seen wealthy drive by to pick up Pizza at the local joint that makes a great but expensive Pizza. Almost everyone in Seattle is driven by price points and the obsession of money here is surreal. It rivals the 12th man for topic matter.
When I tried to explain to the students that the prior bell curve for decades had established a strong and if not broad middle class they had no clue, they argued over what determined being poor and why would anyone want to have just one house or one car when they could have more. It was a futile discussion that was a circuitous as the argument was getting. I finally said to enroll in the economics class across the hall and learn about what defines macro and micro economics and the variations in each.
Education is not about testing the facts they barely can retain them when they barely know what the next day will bring. I have exhausted myself talking to adults and children alike about how to be a better engaged and active member of society and you see why. They too are exhausted. I need to move out and away from here for many reasons but the income inequity is so apparent and the residents in such denial that it becomes pointless as well. A local paper wrote about how our city is divided by income and the decline of the middle class but I doubt 3 people read it, because aside from being a waste of journalism as the Times is, reading news is another lost art.
I cannot wait to read Putnam's next book and then wondering if anyone gives a damn. Well he does but funny one of the writers who wrote the Millionaire Next Door which became a bible of the same era and in turn overshadowing all of Putnam's work, died in a car crash last week. He was driving alone a way more symbolic statement of how we all do die alone and live that way as well regardless of our net worth.
And this followed an earlier story of the French L'Oreal heiress who in declining health is giving her billions to some 'friend' over her family. These are the rich they are different and alone when it comes right down to it. It might be why despite the heady reputation that Seattle has it is quite nuclear in family and why gay marriage is so essential as this idea of committment means at least there may be one person who gives a damn.
Putnam is right it is not simply about economics it is about opportunity. We should all have an opportunity to belong to the community in whatever role we ultimately decides fits for ourselves. But that decision ultimately now is decided for is by the circumstances of our birth. So how to you join and belong to a community that has no concept of what diversity really means other than those who serve and those being served.
I truly think we all bowl alone.
The terrible loneliness of growing up poor in Robert Putnam’s America
“Life is not something you do, it’s something you endure.”
By Emily Badger
March 6 2015
The Washington Post
SWARTHMORE, Pa. — Robert Putnam wants a show of hands of everyone in the room with a parent who graduated from college. In a packed Swarthmore College auditorium where the students have spilled onto the floor next to their backpacks, about 200 arms rise.
“Whenever I say ‘rich kids,’ think you,” Putnam says. “And me. And my offspring.”
The Harvard political scientist, famous for his book “Bowling Alone” that warned of the decline of American community, has returned to his alma mater to talk, this time, about inequality. Not between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but between two groups that have also fallen further apart: children born to educated parents who are more likely to read to them as babies, to drive them to dance class, to nudge them into college themselves — and children whose parents live at the edge of economic survival.
The distance between the two is deeply personal for Putnam, now 74 and launching a book that he hopes could change what Americans are willing to do about children in poverty. He grew up in a working-class Ohio town on Lake Erie where, in the 1950s, poor kids could aspire to Rotary scholarships or factory jobs. He left Port Clinton for Swarthmore, where he met a woman in his introductory political science class who would raise two children with him. They would go on to Harvard. His grandchildren are college-bound, too, or already there, one of them living on the same floor of the dorm where Putnam once bunked.
Some of his classmates from Port Clinton in the 1950s, meanwhile, stayed for manufacturing jobs that later disappeared. Their children faced rising unemployment and stagnating wages. A third generation was born poor, often without two parents.
Pacing the floor like a preacher, Putnam conjures their fate through the story of a real-life Port Clinton child, whom he calls “Mary Sue.” At 5, her parents split. Her mother became a stripper. For days at a time, she was alone and hungry.
“She is a granddaughter of Port Clinton, just as my granddaughter is a granddaughter of Port Clinton,” Putnam says. And no matter how often he repeats this line — which he does frequently in front of any group of politicians, students or voters who will listen — it always comes out anguished.
Half an hour into his Swarthmore lecture, Putnam winds into the voice of what an associate calls an “Old Testament prophet with charts.” He starts throwing graphs on the screen behind him that reflect national trends mirrored in Port Clinton: rising income inequality, growing class segregation, the breakdown of the working-class family.
They all look ominously similar. Each graph shows two lines diverging over the past several decades in the experiences of American kids at the top and bottom: in the share born to single mothers, in the chances that they’ll eat family dinners, in the time parents spend reading to them, in the money families invest in their clubs and lessons.
“Every summer camp you went to or every piano lesson you got or every time you went to soccer club, you were getting some advantage,” Putnam says, “that somebody else out there — Mary Sue — was not.”
It’s not an accusation, but a rallying cry, a call to come to the altar and help save someone else’s children.
“If we can begin to think of these poor kids as our kids,” he says, “we would not sleep for a second before we figured out how to help them.”
Starting a discussion
For the past three years, Putnam has been nursing an outlandish ambition. He wants inequality of opportunity for kids to be the central issue in the 2016 presidential election. Not how big government should be or what the “fair share” is for the wealthy, but what’s happening to children boxed out of the American dream.
His manifesto, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” will be published Tuesday. It places brain science, sociology and census data alongside stories of children growing up on both sides of the divide. Many of the findings draw on the work of other researchers who have long studied families, education or neuroscience. But Putnam has gathered these strands under a single thesis: that instead of talking about inequality of wealth or income among adults, we ought to focus on inequalities in all of the ways children accumulate — or never touch — opportunity.
The gaps he identifies have been widening on both ends: Better-off families are spending ever-more money on their children. They’re volunteering even more at their schools. Their children are pulling away as Mary Sue falls further behind, and her original mistake was simply, as Putnam puts it, that she chose her parents badly.
“Our Kids” picks up many of the themes from “Bowling Alone,” now 15 years later. That book cautioned that Americans were increasingly withdrawing from each other and civic life. Church attendance was in decline. So was union membership, voter turnout, trust in government and participation in civic groups from the Boy Scouts to bowling leagues. As a result, Putnam argued, Americans were losing the kind of “social capital” that helps us solve big, collective problems (how do we pay for our schools?), as well as small, daily ones (who will watch my child tomorrow?).
“At the beginning you don’t know you’re doing a study of the collapse of American social life — you’re doing a study of PTA membership,” says Putnam, who has a grandfatherly presence with a white Abe Lincoln-like beard. “Our Kids” was like that, too. “The more we investigated, the bigger we realized the problem was.”
The poor children in “Our Kids” are missing so much more than material wealth. They have few mentors. They’re half as likely as wealthy kids to trust their neighbors. The schools they attend offer fewer sports, and they’re less likely to participate in after-school activities. Even their parents have smaller social networks. Their lives reflect the misfortune of the working-class adults around them, who have lost job prospects and financial stability.
More than 60 percent of children whose mothers never made it past high school will now spend at least some of their life by age 7 in a single-parent household. In the 1970s, there was virtually no difference in how much time educated and less-educated parents spent on activities like reading to infants and toddlers, which we now know matter tremendously for their brain development. Today, well-off children get 45 minutes more than poor kids every day of what Putnam calls “ ‘Goodnight Moon’ time.”
His hope that “our kids” would rise to national debate is not entirely far-fetched. Over the past year, several prominent Republicans including Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) have begun to talk more about poverty and inequality. Jeb Bush gave a speech in Detroit in February on declining economic mobility for the low-income, calling the opportunity gap “the defining issue of our time.”
Now Bush is one of several likely 2016 candidates to whom Putnam has sent his book. He has discussed its findings with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s staff, with President Obama in the White House, with Ryan in his office on Capitol Hill, and with the House Democratic caucus at its annual retreat. He doesn’t come bearing new solutions but with a crusade to put the problem out in the open.
That moment would come after years of what John Carr, who has long lobbied on behalf of Catholic interests and who introduced Putnam to Ryan, calls “an ominous silence about poverty” in Washington.
“I think the two people who have the potential to break that silence,” says Carr, now the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, “are the pope and Putnam.”
Southeast of Los Angeles, in a heavily Latino part of Orange County invisibly partitioned by gang lines, two sisters in Putnam’s book have grown up with no parents to speak of. Their mother, a heroin addict and prostitute, died when they were young. Their fathers were unknown or absent. Their grandmother kept them on track, but then she died, too.
Lola and Sofia, as Putnam names them (all of the ethnography subjects in the book are anonymous), have navigated life without coaches, pastors, tutors, friends’ parents, counselors, neighbors, community groups, parents’ co-workers and family friends. They feel abandoned even by the one group of adults we like to think poor kids can always count on — their teachers.
“In junior high,” Lola, the older sister, explains to Putnam’s team, “the teachers actually cared.”
“In high school, teachers don’t care,” Sofia says.
“The teachers would even say out loud that they get paid to be there,” Lola says.
“Just to be there,” Sofia says. “Just to babysit.”
“Yeah,” Lola adds, “that they’re there just to babysit, that they don’t care if we learn or not.”
They believe the honors classes at their high school got all the good teachers, but they don’t understand how students were chosen for those classes. Only the smart kids, they say, were told about the SATs. They tried to join after-school activities — the very venue where they might find structure and mentors — but Lola was told her reading wasn’t good enough for a reading club, and Sofia that her grades weren’t high enough to play volleyball.
Through their eyes, coaches and teachers were gatekeepers who extended opportunity only to chosen students.
Their view of the world around them is a deeply lonely one. And it exposes an inverse reality among the privileged that Putnam admits he did not previously see even in the lives of his own children: Take away the parents who drive you to soccer, the peers you know who went off to college, the neighbor who happens to need a summer intern — and childhood is bewildering. A task as simple as picking the right math class becomes another trapdoor to failure.
The privileged kids don’t just have a wider set of options. They have adults who tailor for them a set of options that excludes all of the bad ones.
Meanwhile, for a child like Sofia, “she’s just completely directionless, because life happens to her,” Putnam says. “What she’s learned her whole life is that life is not something you do, it’s something you endure.”
‘A form of isolation’
In July 2013, Putnam came to Washington to receive a National Humanities Medal at the White House for deepening the country’s “understanding of community.” During the visit, Carr, took him to meet Paul Ryan.
Putnam brought his “scissors graphs,” as he calls them, on printed handouts. The graph showing the steep rise of single motherhood speaks to a conservative interpretation of the causes of poverty. Putnam doesn’t dispute that we need to fix families to fix poverty.
But he pairs that with the economic argument more often advanced on the left: that declining real wages and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs have undermined families. That no amount of marriage promotion can repair broken homes when fathers can’t find work, mothers can’t afford day care and the utility bills are past due.
“Bob Putnam’s work helped me understand a key insight,” Ryan says by e-mail. “Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s a form of isolation, too.”
On that same visit, Putnam spoke as well to the president, whom he has known for years. As an Illinois state senator, Obama served on a group Putnam created to ponder solutions in response to “Bowling Alone.” The group, for all its ideological diversity, never hit on any grand answers. But some old-fashioned social capital emerged among its members. To this day, Putnam keeps in his office what looks like a grade-school class photo of the “Saguaro Seminar,” a young Obama grinning in the back row.
When Putnam walked up to receive his humanities medal from the president in a White House ceremony, he playfully chided Obama in a way that only people who knew him before he was president can. “When we first met in Cambridge,” Putnam told him, “I couldn’t have imagined I was going to be seeing you in this place at this time. But I bet you knew you were going to be here.”
An Associated Press photographer captured the president’s reaction, his eyes tightly drawn in laughter. After the ceremony, the president asked Putnam what he was working on.
“Actually, I think you might be interested,” Putnam said.
“Send me something,” the president offered.
President Obama laughs with Robert Putnam as he awards him the the 2012 National Humanities Medal during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 10, 2013. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
“Putnam was the academic who caught the president’s attention right at that post-election moment when he was feeling both liberated and committed to expressing his views on economic inequality,” says Gene Sperling, director of Obama’s National Economic Council at the time. “You might say that Putnam was President Obama’s Piketty,” Sperling added, referring to Thomas Piketty, the French economist who grabbed the world’s attention last year with his writings on inequality.
Putnam that summer sent the White House a six-page memo summarizing “Our Kids,” scissors graphs and all, with a cover letter urging the president to give a speech on inequality.
That memo circulated among the president’s domestic and economic policy advisers, who put together a meeting for the president devoted to inequality. During that session, Putnam sat opposite Obama at a long table in the Roosevelt Room surrounded by national experts and advocates, including basketball-star-turned-urban-entrepreneur Magic Johnson. The meeting opened with Putnam’s research, and he began, as he often does, by summarizing a line he had typed in the president’s memo: “Deeply troubling racial gaps remain, of course, but this opportunity gap is about class, not race, and it is growing.”
Putnam is always quick to say that he doesn’t believe we’ve solved racial inequality. But many of the advocates in the Roosevelt Room that day worried that his message would sound that way, that it would appear as if a country that had overlooked poor black kids should rally to the cause of poverty now that many of the poor kids were white, too.
Race is, in fact, where Putnam is most vulnerable to criticism: His opportunity gap thesis is grounded in the idea that we’ve lost a sense of communal responsibility for children that we had back in the 1950s. But he deals only briefly with the severe racism at that time that no doubt kept many white adults from viewing black children as “their own.”
“You can say politically or strategically that we can set aside race and just look at class differences,” says Robert J. Sampson, a sociology colleague of Putnam’s at Harvard. “But analytically, based on the data, the black-white gap is just too big and too persistent to set aside.”
The poverty black children experience is compounded by their surroundings, as well as by history. Black children are far more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, for instance, and their families are far more likely to have lived in poverty for generations. The more complex reality is that Putnam’s opportunity gap is layered atop this picture — that this new inequality widening along class lines exacerbates for black children the severe disadvantages they face along racial lines.
In the Roosevelt Room debate, the president argued, as he has publicly, for a kind of middle ground: that poverty and family breakdown aren’t uniquely black problems, but ones that hit the black community before the white working class and that acknowledging this unites more people behind the problem.
That December, at an arts and education center in Southeast Washington, Obama delivered a speech on inequality, in which he warned that the opportunity gap in America was now “as much about class as it is about race.” But Putnam’s primary influence appears in another passage.
“The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” the president said. “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us.”
A problem that's everywhere
Putnam’s reception back in Port Clinton has been more complicated. In 2013, he published an opinion piece in the New York Times summarizing the book’s first chapter, its most autobiographical.
His research team studied his Port Clinton High School class of 1959. Nearly three-quarters of the class earned more education than their parents had, suggesting what Putnam calls “astonishing upward mobility.” The working-class kids in town today, he worries, are “locked into troubled, even hopeless lives.” The headline, “Crumbling American Dreams” ran over the photo of a crumbling school.
Many in the town balked at the piece, and the photo (it turns out that school was demolished to build a new one). Christine Galvin, the area director for United Way in Ottawa County, organized a public meeting at a local library where Putnam video-chatted with residents to explain that the trends his research described were not Port Clinton’s fault or unique to it.
“He painted an awful picture of the town I live in, but he just paints reality,” Galvin says. In a letter to the local paper, she implored the town to do something. Could you take a child, she wanted to know, to a story time? Could you mentor a single mom? Could your group sponsor a community potluck? If the answer was yes, she published her cellphone number.
“He named the problem,” she says of Putnam.
That is, in fact, what Putnam does.
And one of the benefits — or burdens — of having something identified for you is that you cannot then shake the sight of it. Spend any time listening to Putnam talk, and suddenly evidence of the phenomenon he’s describing pops up everywhere. It’s on the bus, when a frazzled young mother doesn’t have the patience to play “I Spy” with her child. It’s in the news, when another study confirms that children from single-parent homes finish fewer years of school. It’s at the local school board meeting, where taxpayers don’t want to pay for full-day kindergarten.
Putnam’s solutions are not particularly novel. He wants more investment in early childhood education and criminal justice reform so more low-income men can find work and raise their own babies. He wants religious groups to take up the problem of mentoring. He wants public schools to end “pay to play” fees for after-school sports.
Many of these things will require money, though, and that is where the fight brews. In Port Clinton, his team interviewed one mother from the wealthy community that has grown up on the town’s lakefront, as neighborhoods just inland have collapsed into poverty. She is wary of the idea of special education funding for poor kids in town.
“If my kids are going to be successful,” she says, “I don’t think they should have to pay other people who are sitting around doing nothing for their success.”
She doesn’t recognize that her children are successful precisely because of their advantages of a stable home, regular homework help and college expectations. The fact that Americans increasingly live as they do in Port Clinton now — the rich in their enclave, the poor in another — means that adults who might fund the answers may never come in contact with poor children to recognize the problem. They may never overcome their suspicion that poor people are to blame for their own poverty.
“Look at the economic profile of Congress: where members went to school, what kinds of families they came from, their net worth,” says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D), who represents Port Clinton. “You say to yourself, could this group of people really walk in the shoes of these families?”
This question has long pained poverty crusaders with less optimism than Putnam.