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Restoring Hope for 'Our Kids'

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Robert Putnam's "Our Kids" seems to be the policy book du jour, the one that everyone in my city has to at least pretend to have read. It just landed him on the stage with President Obama, and it's easy to see why. Putnam argues that the great engine of American mobility has broken down as the affluent have increasingly separated themselves from the poor. Instead of living in one community where all the children are "Our Kids," tapping into social networks and public resources that allow them to rise up from humble beginnings, America is separating rich and poor. The prosperous pour financial and social capital into helping their children attain good jobs and stable family lives, while the poor grow up in broken family environments that leave them ill-prepared to advance, with little financial or social capital.

Putnam focuses on his home town, Port Clinton, Ohio. He compares what it was like in his youth with the Port Clinton of today, surveying all the members of his high school class that he could find, about half of them. The Port Clinton of yesteryear reads like an idyll from a mid-century civics film strip: there's not much inequality, and most of his classmates ended up getting more education than their parents. The children of Putnam's classmates, he says, have on average failed to replicate that experience.

This argument covers a lot of territory from "Coming Apart" by Charles Murray, which treated the same topic with a slightly different focus and fewer case studies. Murray's book assesses how changing norms about employment and marriage have degraded communities and the lives of Americans. Putnam's book connects these problems to the big liberal policy issues of the moment: inequality, income mobility, educational access, which he says are hampered by the decline of social capital among the isolated communities of the economic "have nots."

You barely need to haul out the charts and case studies to make this argument; it feels deeply and intuitively true. But is it true? Nicholas Lemann points out that Putnam blurs together "absolute mobility" and "relative mobility." The former expresses how difficult it is for people to get richer or poorer than they used to be. The latter measures whether every kid starts out with the same opportunity to surpass his or her peers, or fall behind them.

The 20th century was a period in which increasing numbers of people got richer and got more education. But that doesn't mean it was a period of extensive relative mobility. Which is to say that if rising productivity increases average incomes by $5,000, and we use half of that money to put every kid through an extra year of high school, then most kids will end up with both higher incomes and more educational attainment than their parents. That will happen even if your socioeconomic status, relative to that of your parents, changes not at all.

In 1967, 25 percent of all Americans ages 18-24 were enrolled in college. By 2012, that figure had risen to 41 percent. College education is rising from something that's attained by a minority of the population, to something that's close to a majority pursuit. We tend to treat this as if it means we're leveling the playing field between people whose parents went to college and those who didn't. But it may simply mean that more jobs are requiring a college degree, so that someone from a fairly modest background has to go to college just to remain at that level.

In at least one sense, we are leveling the playing field: The strivers who can't make it through college are being cut off from the better-paying jobs. In the 1990s, when tech consulting was booming and firms would hire almost anyone who could breathe and carry a tool bag, one of the best network engineers at my firm was a guy who had been a porter at one of the buildings we worked in. He got hired to run cable, and then worked his way up by teaching himself how the machines worked. Talking to people in the business now, it's not clear to me that it would be possible to repeat this in the New York City of today, because all the hiring managers want to see a diploma. 

But that doesn't mean that the past was a paradise of mobility; his case was unusual even then, and the segregation of affluent from poor stretches back much farther than the 1990s (and farther than Putnam's readers might gather). In 1873, the town of Brookline, Mass., rejected annexation by Boston because its prosperous Brahmins didn't want to be absorbed by the city's huddled masses.  

But perhaps mid-century was special? Well ... by the 1950s, thanks to the railroads and then cars, big cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia were surrounded by wealthy suburbs whose children lived nowhere near more ordinary citizens (a distance that is probably most effectively dramatized in Christopher Morley's 1940 novel, "Kitty Foyle"). Small towns were, to be sure, better economically integrated -- in the town of 10,000 where my mother grew up, there was a high school, and you knew you would go there, with all the other kids of all backgrounds. But parents in those small towns were also careful to keep their kids away from kids whose parents were "shiftless" or somehow morally suspect. And it seems also worth noting that the economic forces that were making people richer in the 1950s and 1960s were exactly the same forces that killed those idyllic small towns.

Lemann looks at two studies which suggest that even in Putnam's time "Americans didn’t typically travel far from their origins unless they belonged to a category that was generally rising because of social and economic changes." America in mid-century was going through a lot of changes -- breaking down the racial caste system which had kept many black Americans from aspiring to much more than menial labor, letting more women into the work force, moving people from farms and small towns to urban areas where their labor was more productive, creating more jobs for office workers. There was a lot of absolute mobility. But can you ever again have the mobility of that era? You can only move your farmers off the farm once, or your blue-collar workers into white-collar jobs. Once you've done that, it's not yet clear what to do for an encore.

It's still important to examine what has changed since mid-century. Putnam and Murray both make a good case that the disintegration of community and family at the bottom is real, and really miserable for the people who suffer through it. Without community norms that support family and work, the misery could become permanent. I'd love to hear some good ideas for rebuilding those expectations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Megan McArdle at

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Philip Gray at