March 9, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The problem of increasing poverty in the United States, the ever larger divide between the rich and the poor and the erosion of the middle class is the topic of this article and that of its subject, Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam (Washington Post, 3/6/15). Putnam is smart, informed and powerfully motivated to force political elites to pay attention to what some regard as the single greatest problem facing us.
He also doesn’t have a clue.
The article is long and thought-provoking and Putnam is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Associates describe him in terms usually applied to biblical prophets. He has President Obama’s ear as well as that of top Republican Paul Ryan.
But by the end of the article, it is clear that, whatever may be the fate of Putnam’s ideas in the realm of public policy, the most important issue is at first casually acknowledged and then pointedly ignored.
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.
What could be better? Here’s a man who may just have the clout to get the enormous problem of inequality to be a major part of the public debate, so much so that it may make it into the 2016 presidential campaigns. Imagine – the plight of poor children as a centerpiece of presidential debates and daily in the news as the two contenders jockey for position in the race.
And yet Putnam doesn’t have a clue.
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…
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.
To those of us attuned to the many problems of family breakdown and children being raised by single parents, those two paragraphs fairly shout the news about the core of the problem of inequality. When children are raised by a single parent, they tend to do worse in all phases of life than do kids with two parents, particularly two biological ones. That’s partly because single-parent households tend strongly to be financially less well-off than two-parent ones. But it’s also because two parents bring a wealth of social capital to children that single parents can’t. Specifically, two parents have not only money, but time and energy that single parents don’t.
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.”
Exactly. Single parents don’t have the time or strength to do the little things that kids need to get ahead in life. It’s not because they don’t want to, but a single parent, particularly one with more than one child at home, is doing well just to see to the basics of nutrition, sleep and hygiene.
Putnam of course knows this.
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.
He’s right that “declining real wages and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs have undermined families.” But it’s arrant nonsense to pretend that if we, in some unspecified way, increase wages and reestablish jobs that the lesser educated can get and keep, and that also pay the bills, we’ll put families back together again.
In the first place, family breakup began long before the startling growth of the gap between rich and poor. For African-Americans, it started in the mid-60s when welfare programs actively promoted the removal of black fathers from their homes. It continued with wholesale changes to divorce laws that allowed parents to divorce for “no cause.” It was encouraged by a cultural zeitgeist that suddenly proclaimed men and fathers to be dangerous to children and unnecessary to women and mothers. Coming as they did when our post-World War II prosperity was still in its heyday, all of that occurred when the gap between rich and poor was comparatively modest. So clearly, fixing families will require more than just good jobs and daycare.
Besides, the notion that mothers resist marriage because the available men can’t get good jobs doesn’t bear even casual scrutiny. It doesn’t much matter what kind of job Dad has, two parents for a child are better than one. They can provide more money and, almost as important, they can provide free daycare that’s unaffordable when strangers do it. Two parents can provide all those “Goodnight Moon” times that everyone agrees children need. Even if money were the only issue, two parents can support a family of three better than one parent can support a family of two.
All that brings me to back to my point that Putnam doesn’t have a clue. And neither do the political elites whose views drive national policies. The simple fact is that, in order to solve the monumental problem of family breakdown we’re going to have to do some things that none of those elites want to even discuss, much less do.
Notice that the article refers to “marriage promotion” as if that were the only way to keep families together. And notice too that “no amount of marriage promotion can repair broken homes…” is nothing but a naked assertion, entirely unsupported by any reliable data.
The fact is that, if policymakers took the matter seriously, I suspect we could do a lot toward reacquainting everyday people with the value of intact families to children. After all, 25 years ago drunk driving wasn’t taken all that seriously, but now it is. Why? Because we decided to make it a serious issue. Countless public officials took to the print and electronic media to inveigh against driving while intoxicated and state legislatures and courts made sure that there were drastic consequences to doing so. And in short order, the problem of drunk driving was reduced to a fraction of its former self.
The point being that the political will to fight a scourge can work, and there’s no reason it can’t with family unity. If we started teaching kids of both sexes early on that children do better with two parents than one, that it’s really not a valid option to have a child without a father, that plenty of effective contraception methods exist to prevent unwanted pregnancies, that fathers aren’t free to walk away from children and that mothers aren’t free to shove fathers out of their children’s lives, I believe we’d go a long way toward fixing the problem.
Then of course if we enacted shared parenting legislation to ensure that, when there is a divorce, the kids don’t lose a parent, we’d strike a blow at a wide array of social ills that cost us far more in public services than we can begin to tabulate.
But you’ll notice that none of that makes it into Putnam’s books or lectures. My guess is that he’s one of those people who are adept at figuring out what political elites want to hear and telling them just that. He knows that long-term promotion of dual parenting and radical changes to family laws and court practices aren’t popular, so he gives President Obama and others “solutions” more attuned to their pre-conceived notions. The article’s photo of a beaming Obama embracing Putnam does nothing to undermine my conclusion. Putnam knows how to get his name up in lights, how to be able to hobnob with elites, and it’s not by telling them what they don’t want to hear.
Recall that this is the same President Obama who regularly asks us to believe that the problem of fatherless children is irresponsible fathers. That take is the perfect way to call attention to a problem while doing absolutely nothing about it. The president can pretend he cares about the issue but absolves himself of taking any action. After all, it’s up to dads to be better people, so what need a president do? And the president doesn’t want to do anything because taking effective action would mean making life uncomfortable for a lot of people. No, it’s much easier to blame a constituency that doesn’t much vote for Obama anyway.
Will the topic of children and poverty come up in the presidential campaigns over the next couple of years? It’s hard to know. But what’s essentially inevitable is that, if it does, the solutions offered will be carefully tailored to not do the job.
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