Political scientist Robert Putnam made his name in 2000 as author of the bestselling Bowling Alone. Breaking into the public political sciences scene at the beginning on a new millennia with a severe warning about the value of sustaining a stock of social capital, has given Putnam a memorable position to remould and reiterate in response to changing trends. This very year, Putnam did just that. Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis, maps the social impact of economic blows since the 1970’s. He builds on his previous work by reiterating the value of social capital while assigning the particular economic conditions of the past few decades a part to play in the decay of strong and stable families.
Putnam is well known for placing social capital as the foundation for community stability and economic prosperity, and in his latest book he gives generous address to the family and related issues. Rather than recognising social capital in a tokenistic way, Putnam drives home the point that economic prosperity depends on stable families and vice versa. This latter point, appreciating the fact that an economic plan supports the family is helpfully appealing to our own Chancellor.
The book opens with a nostalgic recalling of Putnam’s own upbringing in Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950’s; ‘a passable embodiment of the American dream’ where regardless of family structures, the kids were known by all the townspeople as ‘Our Kids’. Now, things couldn’t be further than the truth. Statistics mapping a demise from the 70’s such as the doubling of single-parent households, the quintupling of divorce rates and the skyrocketing of child poverty, are only the preface to hiss research. The author moves on to deliver the raw and gritty material.
He tells the story of two Oregon upbringings: Andrew, who admits he failed to appreciate how his comfortable upbringing afforded his fortune, and Kayla, who – since enduring multiple family fractures – fears ‘kind of having my life go downhill’. This is a picture of how family life has been restructured along class lines. Since the stable family collapsed over the 1970’s, a two-tier family structure has emerged: the upper tier composed of a working couple who divide domestic duties and the lower tier who tend to disconnect child-bearing from marriage.
The beauty of Putnam’s sentiment is not to lament increasing contempt for ‘traditional’ families. He does not mean to judge, and nor do I. Despite his nostalgic introduction, Putnam is not reactionary but broadens the terms of debate to recognise the injustice done to families by poor economic prospects. In the United States, towards the end of the 20th century, dying industries left young men unskilled and drove women to work.
The way in which family life plays out in our class system in the UK was documented by Fraser Nelson with the help of the Centre for Social Justice. They discovered that the upper class is monopolising marriage. This is a catastrophe as marriage can determine family stability, which in turn can aid the thwarting of further pathways to poverty. I say this tentatively yet confidently as while generalisations are dangerous, I make no apologies for believing that the ‘M’ word, when appropriately supported by peers and government, is good for society.
Putnam is equally not afraid to share the facts of Andrew and Kayla’s narrative. He appreciates that ‘though imperfect, the correlation is strong: more single parents mean less upward mobility’. In an open letter to the Telegraph last month, it was reiterated by a number of Conservative MPs that relationship breakdown costs the Government £47 billion but just £7.5 million is made available to fund support for relationships. The message is a tough pill for our Chancellor to swallow. Narrowing the marriage gap will cost money, but Putnam prioritises ‘a bias for action’ because purging ‘those kids’ from discourse at our school gates is the only away to recover a single and united sense of ‘our kids’.