Robert Putnam Knows The Real Reason the American Dream Is Fading

Robert Putnam at US Embassy-Israel

Professor Robert D. Putnam argued in his influential book Bowling Alone that since the 1960s, the U.S. had undergone an unprecedented collapse in civic, social and political life–a finding he modified in 2010 by noting that the trend had turned the other way. In this interview, Putnam discusses his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, with Dean Ball of the Manhattan Institute. Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. National Review contributor David French said in his review of Putnam’s book, “I can’t think of another book that more clearly lays out the devastating consequences of the breakdown of the family. As Putnam states: Children who grow up without their biological father perform worse on standardized tests, earn lower grades, and stay in school for fewer years regardless of race and class.”

 Dean Ball: Many of the problems in your new book Our Kids are cultural more than political. Yet at the end you delve into policy recommendations. To what extent do you actually think that policy is going to bring the kind of cultural change we need?

Robert Putnam: I do think that cultural change does occur, and it can occur fairly rapidly. I can think of two relevant episodes that both happen to be cultural change in a progressive direction. The first happened at the end of the 19th century. There are deep parallels between America at the turn of the last century and America today. Both are periods of rapid immigration, political corruption, and both are periods during  which the pendulum had swung very much in an individualistic direction, the idea being that each of us is on his or her own. But then, at the turn of the century, pretty rapidly and across party lines, the country turned in a more communitarian direction, and in many different spheres. In religion it was the so-called social gospel movement in Protestant churches. In politics it was the Progressive party that cut across party lines. In a pretty short time, partially as a result of that cultural change, public policies changed, first at the grassroots and then at the national level. And some of the most important and earliest changes came at the grassroots level, in strange places like Toledo and Galveston, rather than at the national level.

I think most cultural historians would agree that America goes through these huge, centuries-long swings of emphasis on individualism to emphasis on more communitarian views. And this actually cuts across left-right dimensions because there are conservative communitarians and liberal communitarians. I think, in some respects, that the individualist-communitarian divide is as important as the left-right divide on many issues.

The second example of rapid culture change is the Civil Rights era. Six months before the march on Selma, the conventional wisdom said that civil rights legislation was politically impossible. And six months after, we had the legislation. It doesn’t depend on whether you think it was good or bad.

DB: It happened.

RP: Exactly, and it happened very quickly. It involved a rapid change in political opinion. It wasn’t quite cultural opinion in the deep sense that you are talking about, but it was a profound change.

So now let me go back to the current case. I think that the problem of the opportunity gap is a purple problem. That is to say, some parts of the problem are best understood through the conservative lens—the collapse of the working class family, for example. And some parts you can see more clearly through the progressive lenses—the eroding effects, for example, of the long stagnation of working class wages. The same thing is true for solutions.

However, I think that the main obstacle to solving the problem is not actually policy. The main problem isn’t that we don’t have the right solutions. I could list several policies that have clear positive effects.

DB: And you do in the book.

RP: Yes. But there are other things that seem pretty off the table now, like restoring the norm that if you procreate you are responsible for the results of your sexual behavior. That norm is a big deal, and it collapsed in the 60s. The collapse of that norm is in fact responsible for a lot of this problem, and it’s not obvious right now to me how we can change that. I mean, you can’t pass a law saying “no sex without a license.” I don’t see where the policy lever is.

Ultimately, I think the real problem is a lack of responsibility. First, men think they can have sex and not be responsible for the results of in a way that wasn’t true 60 years ago. And second is the notion that we are responsible for other people’s kids as well as our own.

DB: A collective responsibility.

RP: Yes. And it’s not a matter of left or right. The examples I use in the book from Port Clinton where you can see that norm operating so clearly in the lives of two of the kids that I talk about, actually all of the poor kids I talk about. There’s a working class guy who came from a very poor background and his parents didn’t know anything about college at all, but his local pastor took an interest in him.

DB:  A community that fostered him…

RP: But even more dramatically, the two cases of the black kids in town. There was racism, this was the 1950s, but nevertheless, two white people each played an important role in the lives of those two kids. Without the white coach– who was himself a little bit racist– taking an interest in making sure this black kid got a college football scholarship, and even more dramatically, this wealthy matron taking an interest in her maid, who was my classmate, admittedly really smart and hardworking and so on, but still her parents were not going to send her to college. It was this white matron that took an interest in her. Well, all of that captures what we thought about all the kids in Port Clinton—not we, but our parents. They were all “our kids,” and now, honestly, if you go back to Port Clinton and talk to people, nobody thinks of the poor kids that appear in our book as ours. They’re someone else’s kids.

There have been periods in American history in which authors have held up a mirror to social realities. If you take the case of the 19th century Gilded Age, when Jacob Riis, in this city, held up a mirror to the Lower East Side, letting the folks in the Silk Stocking District on the Upper East Side, know what it was like to live in those tenements. And he said, do you want to live in a city, in a country, in which there are people living like those people living in the tenements? The best historical evidence says it had an effect, there were still some underlying norms that he was appealing to that changed the politics. So what did it mean? It meant more money was invested in sewers and clean water. It wasn’t like the revolution came to New York City, but it did actually have real effects. So I’m not saying that Our Kids is going to have the same effect, but that’s the genre of Our Kids. Is that making sense?

DB: Completely, yes. And also, the book’s broader point is that the cultural change is what affects the policy change. Policy change is not what is affecting the cultural change.

RP: Exactly right. Who knows whether we’re at a time in history where that will happen, it certainly could happen, at least that’s my view.

DB: Are you saying that there is just a general lack of responsibility in our culture, something we’ve lost?

RP: Well, to say “lost” implies a kind of a dichotomy, you have it or you don’t have it. But it’s surely reduced. Now I’m playing that back and seeing whether I really believe that. I do really believe that actually. It would be silly to say that people don’t have responsibility—you have a sense of professional responsibility not to say something that I didn’t say or misinterpret it. I have a responsibility not to make up data. There are a whole string of norms that we all follow in our daily lives, so I don’t want to say the sky’s the limit. But it is true, I think. And is that related to the decline of religion?

DB: That’s exactly where I was going.

RP: As you may know, my previous book to this one, American Grace, was about religion. I myself am not deeply religious. I’m an active member of a religious community, the Jewish community, but I’m not deeply theologically religious. But as a student of it, I have to say, religion is a big deal, and I think that secular liberals, and I sort of think of myself as among them, may have underplayed the role that religion has played historically in undergirding our sense of ought. Now oughts can be based on many things; they do not have to be based on the notion of a deity or theology. They certainly don’t have to be based on that, but…

DB: But is religion the most accessible form of those things for, let’s say, the aggregate of people?

RP: Yeah, I do think that, and not just for them. Somewhat to our surprise, we found that church friends are supercharged friends. That is, you feel greater obligations to members of your religious community than to members of your bowling league. David Campbell and I were quite struck when we could see in the data that the more church friends you had, the nicer you were. By nicer, I mean, I was slightly joking, but you’re more likely to help old ladies cross the street, you volunteer more, you give more. All that stuff is true, and it meets the most rigorous standards of social science—it actually causes it. Having church friends, not actually believing in God, so if you happen to get in a church religious community, but you don’t believe in God—say you go because your spouse is religious ,and you go along ,and you are actually members of that community—that community actually makes you nicer.

And I say that without, for a moment, hiding from myself that there are also negative things that are associated with religion. Of course we know that. I mean, people blow up other people in the name of religion, so it’s not like it’s a uniform good. And I do think that we’re just coming through a really interesting period in the ups and downs of religion in America. You know, from the previous book, that we, and everybody now, agrees that religion, in terms of practiced religion and religious communities, has been on a kind of downgrade for the last twenty years or so. And I think by now, it’s the most common view that religion got to be too political in a way. that lots of people, young people especially, felt driven away by the exclusively hard emphasis on conservative sexual values, and I’ve actually, ironically, it’s not the sexual values that I’m concerned about—being responsible for progeny—it was sexual values of having straight marriage…

DB: Premarital sex, something like that.

RP: So, I do think that—this is to your point about responsibility—far be it from me, a secular Jew, to tell religious people how to do their job, but I do think that we’ve been through a period in which  the major American religious communities, especially evangelical and Catholic, have become awfully one-sided in  their emphasis on issues of sex, and especially abortion and homosexuality, to the exclusion of a lot of other things that are clearly there in the Bible and that clearly religious people have in the past paid a great deal of attention to, including responsibility for other people. I mean, the Sermon on the Mount is a much better, clearer statement on this than I’m likely to make, about our responsibility for poor people. I’ll stop lecturing you. I do think that the most important political thing that’s happened, bar none, with respect to the issues I’m concerned about, which are this growing opportunity gap in America and child poverty and so on, is the advent of Pope Francis.  I think that is a hugely important development, and I don’t mean that only in the sense that he’s presumably going to appoint a somewhat different array of archbishops and cardinals, and I don’t mean it only in the sense that he’s got a really good PR presence. I mean, he’s been articulating what is—it’s not like this is some great new revelation that’s just come to him– it is an enduring feature of Christian theology that he’s articulating.

DB: But crucially, he’s articulating it, he’s making it palpable to a modern audience.

RP: Absolutely. I think it’s a really big deal. What I like about it is actually, and I’m not on the same page as him, certainly not with respect to homosexuality, and actually not even with respect to abortion, although that’s certainly a more complicated moral issue. But he’s articulating it in what I would call a purple way, that is, he’s articulating it in a way that makes sense to people who are conventionally thought of as different political camps in America. I don’t know whether that’ll have a big effect. I think it could have a big effect in American politics. And I don’t just mean Catholic politicians suddenly taking this on board, though to be honest with you, Paul Ryan would say that that was a factor in his renewed attention to these issues.

DB: You talk about religion in the last 20 years, becoming fixated on a couple issues in this country. Do you think that has a connection with the rise of evangelical Christianity as a political faction in this country, or do you think it is an unrelated phenomenon?

RP: Well, it’s obviously related to that because evangelicalism, modern evangelicalism. I mean over the last 30 years, expanded rapidly precisely as a counter-reaction to the 60s. I’m just now rechanneling one of the chapters of Bowling Alone, of American Grace, but I’m pretty confident that the rise of evangelicalism is associated with a mass counter-reaction against the 60s. So, in essence, sure there’s a connection, but evangelicalism is not, either now or historically, the same as fundamentalism. There were plenty of evangelical modernists a hundred years ago, and evangelicals, historically, have been the most committed to issues of equality in America. The American Revolution, the language of the American Revolution, “All men are created equal,” comes directly out of the First Great Awakening.  The history is quite clear about this—that language and that culture comes out of an evangelical Protestant movement. The emancipation movement comes directly out of the Second Great Awakening, which was evangelical. You go back and you look, “Where was the evangelical Second Great Awakening of the 1830s and 1840s strongest?” And that’s the same place where the emancipation movement and the Republican Party grew, and it grew out of that. So, I mean it’s quite the contrary, historically, evangelical Protestantism in America has been unusually sensitive to issues of what we would now call social justice. Now that seems a little odd if you juxtapose that with the current version of that, and I recognize of course that fundamentalism emerged in the 20th century as a reaction against the social gospel. The social gospel movement was not a Catholic movement. It wasn’t coming out of what we now think of as mainline churches. It was coming out of evangelical churches.

DB: Is the evangelical movement of today different because of the 60s? Because I think the 60s affected how social movements happen in this country. The terms of the civil rights movement and the tactics, especially of the later civil rights era, have impacted….

RP: Everybody. Yeah, I agree with that.

RPI think convincing the main religious communities in America that the opportunity gap is a big deal,—meaning, I think it’s the most important domestic problem we face now— is almost, I would say, almost a necessary and almost a sufficient condition for solving the problem. Look, there’s a difference between saying something is wrong, which this book does, and saying that it’s a sin. Any secular person has the capacity to say it’s wrong. I’m trying to say, read this, it’s really wrong! But that isn’t the same power as somebody saying it’s a sin. And that’s all I’m trying to say.

DB: it’s a much more profound effect.

DB: On a slightly different topic. Your work invites comparison to the work of Charles Murray, especially his book Coming Apart.

RP: Has he written about the religion thing? I didn’t remember that.

DB: Coming Apart is about decline of religion certainly. And yet you don’t cite Murray at all in your book, right?

RP: That’s not quite true, I do cite him actually. There’s a footnote there, it’s only a footnote, but it says   he covered much of the same material, but offered a different interpretation of it. Frankly, a lot of conservatives, libertarians have alleged that they don’t talk about that, but I do talk about it here.

DB: I missed that in the book, I must say. I’m sorry. I was going to say, how do you think your work fits in?

RP:  I think his book is an important book, and I’ve said so publicly. It’s different, my book, in two ways.  Depending on your political view, you may think these are important or unimportant. First of all, he doesn’t actually focus on kids, he’s focused on adults. And I think that’s the least interesting part of the issue. I think that the kids are the really important part of the issue because they’re the ones who are completely innocent. And there’s a whole bunch of things like bootstrap theory, which is, if you just get your act together and pull yourself up by your bootstraps you’d be fine, which applied to poor people in his book, but can’t apply to kids. So, from my point of view, the difference from focusing on the adults and on the kids, is a really big deal, ethically and sociologically, because Americans have historically been ambivalent about differences in income, that is, the income distribution. Americans have historically not been as concerned as people in other countries have been about rich folks and poor folks. But equality of opportunity is just in our DNA as a country. Equality of opportunity means, all men are created equal. Okay, men—we meant white men, and we meant men.

DB: But, broaden that a little bit…

RP: But the fundamental idea that everybody ought to get an equal start in life, that issue is engaged only if you talk about the kids. So I’m not trying to make an ethical attack on his book, but I think the difference between focusing on the adults and focusing on the kids is important. It also means that I talk about some things here that he doesn’t talk about, like early childhood education and like Good Night, Moon and all that kind of stuff, which isn’t such a big deal if you’re looking at the parents. But it’s a huge deal if you’re looking at the kids. And the second thing people have talked about is, it’s not just left-right, it’s also libertarian-communitarian, and I’m more inclined to say that this is a purple problem that has both economic, or structural, and cultural causes. He absolutely does not think that—he and I have been on panels together—he absolutely thinks there’s no material, no structural, no economic…

DB: It’s all culture.

RP: He thinks it’s all culture. He thinks there’s no connection between the economic stagnation the working class has had, and I just think there is. This is not an ideological position, just look at the data—it’s very implausible. If you look at Port Clinton, where I grew up, and you look at when the family collapsed there, it was not in the 60s. It was in the 80s and 90s, and it collapsed then because of all those factory closings. Nobody in Port Clinton thinks that the 60s caused the rise in unwed births. And finally, because you asked me about differences and so that’s what I’m focusing on—there’re a lot of similarities between our two books and I’m happy to talk about those too—

DB: No, no, I’m more interested in the differences.

RP: Yeah, and Charles and I have been on the same platform in which people asked both of us, what should you do about it? And he said, I’m more or less quoting, “I’m a libertarian, I don’t think you can fix things.” That’s not my view. I have mixed, or you can say muddled, ideas about what you do about it. I don’t mean that he’s morally obtuse, but I just think in this particular case his libertarian views need him to have no foundation on which to build moral condemnation of the situation. I’m trying to avoid being just critical of his book, but when he does have things to say about that, it’s largely middle-class people should go into the ghetto and preach virtue. That, I think, doesn’t take the problem seriously. I also think that, in a way, that’s what I’m doing, preaching too. You could say in a very loose sense, isn’t it bizarre– Putnam is preaching, doing what Murray wants me to do? I’m preaching. But I’m actually mostly preaching to the upper classes, not preaching to the lower classes.

DB: Thank you, professor.

3 thoughts on “Robert Putnam Knows The Real Reason the American Dream Is Fading

  1. “men think they can have sex and not be responsible for the results of in a way that wasn’t true 60 years ago. And second is the notion that we are responsible for other people’s kids as well as our own.”

    Something is missing from this picture. How does one talk about lack of procreative responsibility without talking about women?

    1. Exactly. On top of that, the idea that men were not held responsible is a fallacy. A lot men found out (at the end of shotgun if necessary) that a pregnant woman meant a marriage was in the offing said marriage producing ongoing legal responsibility. “They had to get married” (and BOTH take responsibility for the outcome of their sexual behavior) is a phrase that has entirely disappeared.

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