Sep 14, 2015

Our Kids: There is a Generation of Poor Kids Today With Little Hope for a Better Tomorrow?

On the evening of 9/9/15 eleven members of the club met to discuss Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam. As usual we met at the Kensington Row Bookshop (3786 Howard Ave, Kensington, MD 20895)

Background on the Book

A great American myth is that any American child can rise to the top of the society in business, government or fame. Author Putnam quickly establishes that while some poor American kids in the past have indeed risen as the myth suggests (e.g. Ford and Edison, Lincoln and Jackson, Frederick Douglass), it has been likely in America that a child born to upper class parents would grow up and attain above average status and that a child born to lower class parents would as an adult be below average status. What has been true is that over its history the USA has grown rapidly economically, and that that growth has enabled the average child to be better off economically than his/her parents, as well as to live longer and more comfortably.

The thesis of Our Kids is that an important and unfortunate change has taken place in America society since 1970 (and indeed since 1959 when author Putnam graduated from high school). Upper-class. well-educated parents still can feel optimistic for their children, but the children of poor, poorly educated parents are likely to grow up poorly educated and thus themselves of limited opportunities in life. The socio-economic distance between college graduates and those with high school or less schooling is increasing. Putnam goes on to indicate that Black and Hispanic upper class parents can be optimistic for their kids -- that he believes that the discrimination is socio-economic, not racially based.

The book notes that neighborhoods have become more segregated in America in recent decades: upper class neighborhoods have uniformly richer, more educated residents, lower class neighborhoods have uniformly poorer, less educated residents; there is less mixture than in the past of rich and poor, of more and less educated in the same neighborhood. Upper class neighborhoods differ from lower class neighborhoods having more effectiveness of parenting, better schooling (but not bigger school budgets inputs) and better community social capital available to bringing up kids -- all to the benefit of the upper class kids.

The book includes a chapter on Port Clinton where Putnam graduated from high school. It then has chapters on families, parenting, schooling and community; each of these chapters focuses on a specific place: Bend (Oregon), Atlanta, Orange County (California), and Philadelphia. A final substantive chapter is titled "What is to be Done". The location specific chapters have narrative sections based on extensive interviews that were carried out as part of the research. The author and his assistants interviewed young people and their parents, where one set of parents in each location had college educations and the other set had high school or less. Interviews include African Americans and Hispanic Americans as well as whites. These chapters also have analytic sections, drawing on a wealth of statistical data tracing trends from 1970 to the present.

A final chapter begins pointing out that child poverty in the United States is a huge drag on the economy. Each year we allow it to persist costs us in lost productivity, increase crime and added medical costs. The opportunity cost to the nation of tossing away the potential in these kids is measured in trillions of dollars. Our democracy works less well because the poor kids are not educated properly in citizenship. Most important, we have a moral responsibility to see to the education and development of all our kids. Putnam, in a final chapter, offers a number of practical steps that could be taken to reduce the problem and help save at least some of these kids.

Robert D. Putnam is a distinguished Political Scientist and academic. He is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. He has received numerous scholarly honors, including the Skytte Prize, the most prestigious global award in political science, and the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities.  He has written fourteen books, translated into more than twenty languages, including Bowling Alone and Making Democracy Work, both among the most cited publications in the social sciences in the last half century.  His 2010 book, co-authored with David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, won the American Political Science Association’s 2011 Woodrow Wilson award as the best book in political science.

Source: Also found on Robert D. Putnam's website
Some Things Shared with the Group by means of the Internet Before the Meeting

The following are listed in the order they were shared with club members:
  • "According to the annual Kids Count Data Report, which ranks states based on the well-being of children living there, about 3 million more children were impoverished in 2013 than in 2008, an increase of 3 percent that brings the total number of children in poverty to 16,087,000."
  • "Several of you have asked me why I post quotes from the 1830s, 1910s, 1930s, and 1960s and early 1970s. It’s because in those four periods Americans reasserted power over financial elites that threatened to usurp our economy and democracy. Unlike societies that have succumbed to fascism, communism, totalitarianism, and violent revolution when their people become frustrated and fearful, America reforms itself. That’s what we did in the 1830s when elites accrued unwarranted privileges, and we abolished property rights for voting, enabled small businesses to incorporate without legislation, and fought off a national bank; between 1901 and 1916 during the Progressive Era, when we established a progressive income tax, enacted pure food and drug laws, and split up the giant trusts; during the New Deal of the 1930s, when we created Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek, and required employers to negotiate with labor unions; and in the 1960s and early 1970s when we enacted Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare and Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Act, and the Federal Election Campaign Act." Another wave of fundamental reform is on its way." Robert Reich
  • Video: "U.S. Schools Still Segregated"

  • We see occasional charts of the distribution of income, but it is hard to understand just what a specific chart means. This data from the Urban Institute seems to clearly show that the rich are getting richer and the poor, not so much!
Criticisms of the Book

It was suggested that Port Clinton was not typical of 1950s America, or at least not as typical as Putnam seems to think. The book's survey data suggests that almost all of Putnam's 1959 Port Clinton graduating class went on to college; most American kids did not go to college in 1959. Members described the experience of their own classes (which of course graduated over a wide time span) ranging from few to the vast majority of classmates going on to college; the sub-culture shared by students in each specific school seemed to make the difference.

Some members were very concerned with the lack of job opportunity for new college graduates in the USA today and since the beginning of the Great Recession, especially those with new grads with technical degrees. This seemed in direct contradiction to Putnam's position that American kids of University educated parents are likely to get good educations and do well economically. Thus, several members reported recent experience of relatives and friends who had long searches for jobs. Some of the blame was directed to personnel offices that recruit using formal lists of job prerequisites, especially where comparable training exists that would equally qualify candidates. (Requiring specific university classes might indicate a job is wired for a specific candidate.)

It was noted that many such jobs now seem to be going overseas, especially computer and Internet related jobs to India. A member noted that the best Indian university technical training is very good, entry in those programs very competitive, and one now finds superbly qualified Indian students enrolling in MIT as a backup for their first choice school, such as an Indian Institute of Technology. Still, the lower pay of Indian workers may be in many cases the reason that American firms hire them.

It was also noted that while the children of well educated black and Hispanic parents may do well in school and life, that does not mean (as author Putnam seems to suggest) that racism is not a major problem. Black and Hispanic kids are much more likely to be the children of poor and poorly educated parents than are white kids. Moreover, the blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in poor and racially segregated neighborhoods. We felt that racism is still a major factor explaining why so many of our kids get poor educations and limited life choices.

Discussion of the Book

There appeared to be a consensus in the group that author Putnam has not only identified a little understood but very important problem in American society, but has developed a serious data base to support his thesis. This is an important book likely to bring the problem to wide public attention.

Joe's comments perhaps deserve to be underlined. He was for many years a high school teacher and councilor, and spoke from deep knowledge and concern.

  • He emphasized the importance of extra curricula activities, especially sports, in drawing kids from poor neighborhoods into interest and performance in school. 
  • He also led the discussion of the importance of training more kids to work in good jobs that need to be done, but jobs that may not have a lot of prestige; these might include the jobs of carpenters, welders, plumbers. masons and other skilled trades. He mentioned how satisfying it was for some of his former students to work in these service jobs (students who came back to school to talk to him). Joe had great difficulty getting either his teachers union or his school interested in vocational education. 
  • Joe contrasted his experience in Gonzaga High School (many years ago) with that of current students; Gonzaga set a very high standard of scholarship, and dropped students who did not meet that standard; Joe's class was reduced by half over the high school years, but Gonzaga's grads were superbly trained for college. 
  • Joe entered the county school system teaching Latin and Greek, Latin being required in those days decades ago. 
  • He also mentioned he is going to Pat Conroy's party in a few weeks; Conroy was one of his first high school students and Joe was apparently the first teacher who recognized Conroy's gifts and encouraged him to consider writing as a career. 
  • On one occasion he was interrupted by a student asking for immediate attention. The student had been living with his mother, but she on a trip decided she would move in with a man she met and leave her son on his own. He had no money and would soon be helpless. He had nowhere to turn but the school counselor. Joe was on the spot. That kind of problem is all but impossible for any school to handle.
  • Joe commented on the heavy demand for end of year testing imposed by corporate testing agencies such as that which gives the Advanced Placement tests; this outside testing demand has made end of year tests for normal classes more difficult for schools and students. Another member mentioned that it has been especially difficult for New York students, who are also expected to take Regents Exams to qualify for the more prestigious Regents high school diplomas, exams which are also given at the end of the school year.

Author Putnam provides a list of reforms that he believes would improve the situation. Some examples, with our criticisms are:
  • Suggestion: Contraception and other means should be used to delay women from having children. Response: Teen pregnancy rates have been going down for some time.
  • Suggestion: More cash should be provided to poor families, especially families with children. Response: The social safety net has been frayed in recent decades, especially by the reforms that linked government assistance to work. Is there the political will to do this? (There was great resistance in many states to expansion of health insurance to the poor with government subsidies.)
  • Suggestion: Provide more well-designed, center-based early childhood education. Response: Bringing in professionals to communities with high levels of unemployment has its own problems.
  • Suggestion: Move kids from poor neighborhoods into schools in good neighborhoods; Response: How feasible is this? It raises logistics problems especially for poor, single-parent families that have few resources. Such efforts sometimes raise resistance from the educated families that have moved into expensive neighborhoods so that their kids can go to schools with motivated peers and high rates of college entrance for their graduates.
  • Suggestion: Extend school hours to provide more opportunity for extra-curricula activities. Response: We have been shocked by the trend to charge students to participate in athletics. 
  • Suggestion: Provide more vocational education: Response: This has been a hard sell to teachers and to school boards.
  • Suggestion: Provide more community college alternatives and cut back on support for for-profit schools living on students paying fees with student loans. Response: The Obama administration has proposed the community college expansion, and there has been some success in policing the for-profits, but not enough.
  • Suggestion: Provide mentoring programs. Response: Well prepared mentors are hard to find; are the kids who most need them likely to accept mentors?
Putnam also suggests investing in poor neighborhoods and moving poor families with kids to more affluent neighborhoods with better performing schools.

More General Issues of Feasibility

Economic: We discussed the general economic situation of the country, from the increasing concentration of wealth and income, to the impact of globalization reducing the availability of good jobs for people with high school or less education, to the impact of the Great Recession that began in 2008. None of these economic realities bode well for the future of kids from poor neighborhoods.

We also discussed the decay of the U.S. social safety net. For example, the Clinton administration's change of welfare policy to provide assistance to low income working people; the change seems to have put a lot of people back to work, but that was when there were jobs available for people to fill.

There was sympathy expressed for the poor woman head of household with children to raise and care for, and no support from the kids' biological fathers. Theirs is really a tough life, often lived in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates and massive drug problems.

Basically, improving the lot of poor families, and thus the opportunities of their kids, depends on the economic health of the county and the distribution of income. If these are not conducive to progress for the poor, individual initiatives may not be feasible or may not greatly improve the general situation.

Political: The quotation from Robert Reich above suggests that the country gathers the political will for change to improve the lives of the least advantaged every several decades; the most recent were the progressive era of the 1910s, the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s. Can we hope for such a moment to come soon to save our kids? That is the question.

It was pointed out that there are great schools in the United States, such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia. We also know that there are a lot of American kids in substandard schools. The current Congress does not seem capable of improving the national K-12 system, nor to have the political will to legislate to solve the educational problems of our poor kids. Recent changes in the interpretation of the Constitution (corporations have rights of free speech as persons) and changes in campaign financing law tend to concentrate power in the hands of elites, perhaps making it harder to achieve pro-poor reforms.

There are huge differences in the performance of kids on national examinations among states. Look for example at Arizona with below average student performance on all NAEP tests versus Massachusetts with above average student performance on all of the same NAEP tests. Is there any likelihood that the state governments in states with poorly performing students will have the political will to bring their kids up to the national standard?

At the local level, one of the reasons for the segregation of highly educated people into neighborhoods with similar college grad neighbors -- leaving less educated folk in their own segregated neighborhoods -- is that the college graduates seek schools where their kids can be expected to do well; they know that such schools have highly motivated students likely to come from such neighborhoods. Busing of kids from poor families and poor neighborhoods into the good schools in the affluent neighborhoods has not been politically popular with the more politically active folk in the highly educated neighborhoods.

Cultural: One member held that the book showed that the culture of those living in the least educated neighborhoods had changed in the last several decades: families were less stable, single parent households more common, gangs infested some poor neighborhoods as did drugs and drug dealers. Social capital was reduced in these poor neighborhoods, and now was much less than in the comparable neighborhoods of 1970 or the 1950s. Kids brought up in these poor neighborhoods approached school with terrible attitudes -- that studying was to be criticized, that education would not benefit them, that they should enter sexual behavior early. A member pointed out that the kids would defend these values; another that of course that was true in that children would always tend to defend the attitudes prevalent in the culture in which they are raised. The original member suggested that inducing desired cultural changes on a national scale was very hard; the current culture had evolved over decades and quick progress in improvement of cultural attitudes would neither be quick nor easy.

Final Comments

This was an unusually lively and productive discussion, with many members participating.

Members agreed that this was not only an important book, but one that was readable and that would raise people's understanding of a new and important problem faced by our society. One member has already bought four additional copies of the book to distribute to friends.

A member posted related material on his blog:


  1. A member just shared this from The Onion

    "Nation’s Marketers Only People Still Trying To Reach Inner-City Child"

  2. "Today, 2.5 million children in the United States under age 18 are without a permanent roof to live under--more than ever before. One in five of these children lives in California. What makes this even more heartbreaking is many of these children are ineligible for federal homeless assistance programs because the government doesn't consider them homeless.

    "A narrow definition of homeless is currently used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and it is in dire need of revision. It only includes everyone sleeping on the street or in an emergency shelter. The children described by the Times would not have been considered homeless because they were staying at the motel."

  3. Want To Get More Students To Go To College? Text Them.
    8.6 percent more low-income students enrolled after receiving the texts.

  4. Robert Putnam in Our Kids pointed to the problems in the poor areas of Orange County. Here is a program helping out.

    From my Alma Mater. Zot!

  5. "Student Test Scores Slip"
    "Math proficiency falls, reading flat or down in national results at time of focus on U.S. competitiveness"

    "Black and Hispanic students continue to lag behind white and Asian ones."