No More "Scissor Charts"

11:53 AM

Robert Putnam's latest work, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is alarming. Like his previous works, Putnam, in the research terms of sociology, tells us what we already know. This time, as usual the bearer of bad news, he tells us that "our kids" are in trouble. We've known that, but we prefer not to see those "other kids" as "our kids."

"Scissor graphs," as Putnam dubs them, demonstrate the expanding gap between upper-class and lower-class parents and children in the U.S. (68). He includes 13 critical graphs in his work, and each one should raise an alarm. The word "gap" appears on at least 74 pages of the 277 pages of text, fully a quarter of the book (excluding acknowledgements, notes, and index). "Gap" would appear more frequently were it not for the rich illustrations of how so many American youth live.

Perhaps the measured tones of the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government do not raise the blood pressure. Perhaps amid the precision of the social sciences to distinguish correlations from causes mutes the urgency of this work. The final chapter of the books includes a rich panoply of ideas in "What is to be done?" (227-261), but the clarion call is rather tepid:
So if you are concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you could do right now. Close this book, visit your school superintendent-- better yet, take a friend with you-- and ask if your district has a pay-to-play policy. . . . Insist that pay-to-play be ended. (258)
While I agree with the importance of school extracurricular activities, there are many matters that need our attention. From the first page, Putnam tells us that he sees a "split-screen American nightmare" (1). At the same time, Putnam has created "a book without upper-class villains" (229). Perhaps he is right: we are all responsible, and let's not waste time in finger-pointing. We all have interest in this, from the political left or right, including those who have disengaged. I understand the aim: that we might all engage in caring for "our kids," but perhaps Professor Putnam needs to raise the decibels to be heard. Perhaps we all need to sound the alarm.

As some would await eagerly the next Harry Potter novel, I wait for the works of Robert D. Putnam. No other non-theologian made his way quite so regularly into my homilies when I preached. I have been blessed to hear him both in North and South America. Moreover, his research, asking simple but great questions, draws common sense conclusions, even if bad news. For instance, the safest neighborhood? It is not the one with more police, or the wealthiest residents; it is the neighborhood where neighbors know one another by name, and, sadly, fewer of us know our neighbors by name.

Putnam revisits his hometown of Port Clinton, OH as the starting point for describing change in the U.S. This important work draws on vignettes of black, white, and Latino families, grounded in state-of-the-art research. Putnam charts a course through families, parenting, schooling, and communities (including churches) to see how we are failing more and more of "our kids":
If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children isn't good: in recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we've shirked collective responsibility for our kids. (205)
And, yes, the book is having notable impact on the conversation. Last month, President Barack Obama appeared with Putnam in a forum at Georgetown University. However, we all need to take up the mantle for "our kids." If we really do it, I would no longer feel the urge to put "our kids" within quotation marks. If we really did it, we would end the "scissor charts." If we really did it, America would experience a conversion toward genuine care and concern for all, which would be a better America for us all.

It starts with hearing the bad news in the measured tones of an Ivy League sociologist. Read him. Then read it again. Then, when you close the book, don't stop at a conversation with the local superintendent. Let's put an end to the "scissor charts." Let's take care of our kids.

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