Robert Putnam Transcript
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very glad to have with me today Robert Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard School of Government, formally the Government Department at Harvard. And a very distinguished commentator and scholar, student of American public life in many different aspects. Thanks for joining me.
PUTNAM: It’s great to be with you, Bill.
KRISTOL: Your most recent book – your most famous book, I suppose, maybe, is Bowling Alone from 1999, 2000?
KRISTOL: Come back to that. Your most recent book is called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I think there is a continuity of the two books. So let’s just talk about – not so much the books – but talk about America.
What is your analysis of the society, the politics, the culture, and above all – you’re an empirical student of American society. Everyone else has opinions and ideas, but you’ve actually looked at the data. So what alarms you? What doesn’t alarm you? What are the things one should know if you’re thinking what’s up in America?
PUTNAM: Well, if you mean by what’s up – I know you didn’t. If you mean by what’s up, what’s going well, there are a lot of things that are going well, and I want to begin by saying that because a lot of what I have to say is what’s not going well in America, but over the last 50 years, say, over the period since I was in college, a lot of things have gone well. America’s materially better off than we were. We have cell phones, longer life expectancy, more tolerance for minorities of all sorts, gender preference, women – my daughter has a lot more opportunities than my sister would have had.
Obviously, we’ve made progress also on race. Not enough, but we’ve made progress on race. A lot of good things have happened, but I think a lot of bad things have happened, too, over this period. And the two of them that have attracted my attention most firmly are a decline in our sense of community, our sense of connection with one another. And that is what I wrote about in Bowling Alone. The title Bowling Alone, obviously, referring to the fact that although more Americans are bowling than ever – actually, more Americans bowl than vote – bowling in leagues, bowling in teams, is off by about 70 or 80 percent now from the peaks.
That reflects – that was the image of the lonely bowler. But the larger picture was that in many different ways in which we can measure these things, people are just less connected with other people in civic activities, within their own family. Family dinners were disappearing and have continued to disappear. In terms of their ordinary, everyday life, people had fewer friends, fewer intimate friends –
KRISTOL: So the argument wasn’t so much a psychological one as a sociological one, if that’s the right word. That, in fact, there’s less community, not just that people vaguely felt somehow –
PUTNAM: People do feel it. And what the book says is, “You’re right. It’s not just in your mind, actually it’s just true.” And when I published the book, one of the most striking things that happened to me afterwards, lots of people came to me said, “Yes, you’ve got it right.” They didn’t know the data, for goodness sakes.
They knew that their mom had been in Hadassah, and they weren’t. Or their dad had been in the Rotary Club or, you know, in a union, and they weren’t. And they conceived that as something – they knew why they hadn’t. They were busy and they couldn’t do all that other stuff, but they also felt a little guilt that they weren’t doing it, and then along comes this Harvard professor and says, “It’s not you. We’re all disconnected from one another.”
That was the first place where I began to focus on this change in the degree to which people were connected with one another. We can get back to the Internet because when I wrote the book the Internet didn’t exist but it came into being almost exactly after I wrote the book and so people then – often natural question is, “Well, isn’t the Internet more connection than ever we’ve had before?” So that’s an important issue that maybe we can bracket for now, but the larger picture was that we were being less – we were, in fact, less connected with one another, both in the big picture – that is, connecting with your town or your community – and also in the smallest, most intimate way – less connection with your family even.
And in Bowling Alone, I try to argue that isn’t not just an interesting fact, it has a lot of bad consequences because a lot of the way, especially American society, fits together has depended upon what Tocqueville wrote about, you know, in the almost 200 years ago now, about this Americans constantly joining things. We’ve been able to run a different kind of society. A less statist society, a more free-market society, because we had real strength in the area of social capital and we had relatively high levels of social trust. We sort of did trust one another, not perfectly, of course, but we did. Not compared to other countries. And all that is declining, and I began to worry, “Well, gee, isn’t that going to be a problem, if our system is built for one kind of people and one kind of community, and now we’ve got a different one. Maybe it’s not going to work so well.”
And one way in which I then talked about it was the idea that we were having a more constricted sense of we. That is what had once been – we talked about we, we meant all the people in town. What’s a we? I’m not one for exaggerating, of course. There were people without groups and so on, but there was a sense of we, and that over my lifetime that has gotten constricted. And so the we became an I. And fast forward, that’s 2000, coming forward 15, 10 years, I then began to think about what are the consequences of that change and other big changes in America for kids.
KRISTOL: Before we get to kids, just curious, and you think – I mean, you’re biased – the data both hold up and, obviously, there’s a huge amount of back-and-forth and controversy and detailed analysis and your detailed analysis, you think A), the data from Bowling Alone hold up and B), has it gotten more that way or has there been any reversal? I’m just curious. You don’t need to defend the proposition.
PUTNAM: I can think of things that I’ve written in the past that turned out not to be right, but this wasn’t one of them. I mean, a lot of the history, the history of the debate about Bowling Alone is that I wrote an article before we had done a whole lot of work on it called “Bowling Alone,” and people said, “No, no, he’s forgotten soccer leagues, he’s forgotten reading groups, he’s forgetting all these things.” If you took those into account, there wouldn’t be a decline.
So I spent five years and got really good data on reading groups and soccer clubs and so on, and it turned out when you counted everything, I had underestimated the decline. So actually I think that’s probably now what the – I think the scholarly consensus is there’s has been a movement toward greater individuation. That’s the jargon that sociology would use.
KRISTOL: Individualism. So it’s not that far from Tocqueville.
PUTNAM: The answer is yes, I do.
KRISTOL: And it’s gotten more that way probably.
PUTNAM: With the one important question about the Internet, because the Internet is a big deal. The Internet is a network, and therefore, in principle, maybe connecting with people over the Internet could be just as good as or even better –
KRISTOL: Let’s take a minute on that. The counter-argument would be, obviously, there are these new kinds of communities online, these virtual communities, people finding people sharing interests and hobbies and what not.
PUTNAM: There was a debate for about 10 or 15 years actually after the Internet came into creation about whether the Internet was real social capital, as real connections or not real connections. And that I think was a misplaced way of phrasing the problem.
I think because nowadays, almost all of our human networks – social networks, yours and mine and most people’s – are simultaneously real and face-to-face, but also electronic, right? My daughter is a writer and historian, and I’m a writer and something of an historian, and she writes or – at least, did for a long time – lived in the jungles of Costa Rica, and I live in the jungles of New Hampshire, and we’re both night people and we have a lot of email, go back-and-forth talking, “How’s your chapter going?”
I’m sure I’m much closer to my daughter than I would be with the email than without the email. I did not meet my daughter on the Internet. This is a relationship that has a reality that is not limited to the – and therefore, conceptually, let’s think about connections as alloys. An alloy is a mixture of two metals that has characteristics alike. I never remember – copper and tin or something, you mix them together and you get bronze or something. Has different properties than either of them had separately. We have mixed now real face-to-face connections and electronic connections in ways that create new alloys. They’re good for some things, they’re not good for other things. They’re not all – I happen to be one of the oldest users of Facebook in the world because it was invented by someone who was a roommate of a person taking my seminar at Harvard and so my seminar was a beta tester for Facebook.
I’ve been on it forever, and initially, Facebook was limited to campuses so everybody, all of your friends, were real friends. That is, all of your friends were real friends. Then, they opened it up to anybody, and anyone that is visible – I’m sure that this happens to you, it happens to me all the time – you get asked to be friends with people you’ve never heard of. Hans from Berlin last night wanted to be a friend of mine. I have no idea what Hans had in mind, didn’t know for sure what gender Hans is. Is he planning to meet me with flowers if I show up? If I get sick, will he bring me chicken soup?
There’s been a divergence between friend and real friend, and that represents – I’m not negative about the Internet, I’m not. But I don’t think you can phrase it in just we’re no longer bowling, but we’re surfing. Because we know – I’ll draw you a graph here very quickly. It turns out having more friends makes you happier. There’s really good research on this, and I can draw a graph. Each additional friend makes you happier.
KRISTOL: These are real friends?
PUTNAM: Real friends. The graph goes up like this: three friends, you’re happier than with just two; 12 friends, you’re happier than just with 11; stops at 20. The 21st friend does not make you any happier. The 20th has gone up like that. The line goes up.
Now, what does the line look like for happiness and friends on Facebook? Absolutely flat. You’re 400th friend doesn’t do anything for the first friend – I mean Facebook friends. What I’m trying to say is the Internet is really interesting, and it’s very early days so we don’t know how it’s going to transform – it is transforming our society. I’m cautioning against the idea that it’s a one-for-one replacement of having dinner with your family.
KRISTOL: And in some ways, it increases – it’s complicated because it cuts both way. Okay, so that there’s the problem of the decline of community, which is also the decline of social capital. Then, you wanted to see the effect of that on families and kids, especially.
PUTNAM: There are several big things that have happened in America over the last 50 years. As I say, some of them are good. Three that I think are not so good are, first of all, the growing income inequality in America. People on the high end have gotten really quite wealthy. People who are well-educated have done very well. That’s me and you; we’ve done really well compared to other folks. But people from the median income down have not done so well over the last 30 or 40 years.
A second trend is the decline in social capital, the decline in connectedness. A third trend is the growing segregation of American society. And this is something that Charles Murray talks about. Charles and I – interesting, we have very different politics, but we both agree almost entirely on the facts of what’s happened, including the collapse of the working-class family. And so and Charles wrote this great book, Coming Apart, that documented many of those trends, and Our Kids talks about many of the same themes that his book talks about.
We differ in two ways, I think. One is – which we can get to later – he and I have very different views of what you can do about it. But a second – and way more important from my point of view – is I’m focusing on the kids. All of my attention is asking what difference does this coming apart of American society make for kids? What we’ve found – and this is what’s written in the book Our Kids – is that all of these trends together have meant that kids coming from educated backgrounds, upper-middle-class kids – my grandchildren, my children, and my grandchildren – are doing better than ever. Right?
Better than their counterparts, you know, 30 or 40 years ago. Higher test scores, better track records, better, you know, track and field records. In every way, they’re doing better and better. But on the same measures, kids coming from working-class backgrounds of all races in America are doing worse and worse. And that’s what Our Kids is talking about.
The reason I’m focused on that? A lot of people talk about inequality nowadays, and they’re talking mostly, they’re talking about inequality of income. That is, you know, rich folks and poor folks. And that’s relevant but historically Americans have not cared so much about there being rich folks and poor folks; we figured everybody gets on the ladder at the same point. We all get a fair start. Some people climb higher – Warren Buffet, Bill Gates. Fine, they work harder, they’re better climbers. Why shouldn’t they be well paid?
All the assumption that we’re all getting on the ladder at the same place, but we’ve cared more than most other countries about that kind of equality. Equality of opportunity. Do all kids basically have a fair starting point in life, regardless of what their parents did or didn’t do? And that’s the core of the American dream – I really do. That everybody here ought to get a fair chance, start at life, and we are never perfect at that, but I think what the evidence says is we’re getting worse fast on that, and I think, and thought, that that ought to be of concern for everybody, not just progressives. Everybody ought to worry if that fundamental core idea that just because you’re a kid in America, you ought to get a fair start.
KRISTOL: Your concern is not simply, is that the relative – I mean, obviously, I suppose the kid of two college educated professionals is going to have a start higher on the ladder than the kid that doesn’t have those advantages. But one wouldn’t be so worried about that, perhaps, as long as the kid who was lower on the ladder still had a good shot to make it up, but I think your argument is not just the gap but that actually, absolutely even the kid lower on the ladder is now facing obstacles he didn’t 30, 50 years ago. Is that right?
PUTNAM: That’s right. And it’s not just there is a gap but the gap is growing, and the whole book is encompassed in that. Things getting better and better for kids from educated homes, and kids getting worse, things getting worse for kids coming from less well-educated homes. And the kids had nothing to do with it. It’s not their fault. People joke, the most important thing now is choosing your parents. Well, that’s just wrong. I can joke about it, but at some deep level that just feels to me deeply wrong. And to go back to the link in the decline of the community, there are many reasons for the growing gap between rich kids and poor kids, many. The core underlined reason, in my view, is captured in the title of the book. That’s why it’s called Our Kids.
Because when I was growing up in the 50s, in a, you know, a different world, and when my parents talked about doing things for our kids, we know we’ve got to have, invest some money so our kids could have a swimming pool. They did not mean having a swimming pool in our backyard for my sister and me, they meant “Let’s pay higher taxes so all the kids in town have a swimming pool at the high school.” The term our kids meant all the kids in town.
And the proof of it was they kept doing those things when my sister and I were long gone. They were doing it for the other kids in town. But as a result of the “bowling alone” phenomenon, over the last 30 or 40 years, the meaning of our kids, the meaning of what our obligations are to one another has shriveled, and it’s become now focused, when people talk about our kids now, they mean their own biological kids. And if you go back to my hometown and talk about poor kids there now, they say about the poor kids, “Well, they’re not my kids, they’re somebody else’s kids. Let them worry about them.” You see how that sense that other people’s kids don’t really belong to me. Of course, we pay attention to our own kids. I do and you do, and I’m not trying to say that’s wrong, on the contrary. I’m trying to say we ought to have some regard as Americans historically have had for all the kids in town.
KRISTOL: And to what degree does the data suggest, if you’re a working-class kid growing up in an intact family – I think this would be an obvious question for conservatives who put much a lot of emphasis on family breakup – that certainly is the theme of Charles Murray –
PUTNAM: I agree that –
KRISTOL: This is an empirical question, but I mean how much data, if you are a working-class from an intact family, does that ladder still look the way it did 30 or 40 – your argument is that it does go beyond –
PUTNAM: I’m going to be falsely quantitative here. But of the total growing gap, maybe a third of it is due to the family, the intact families.
KRISTOL: The differential family breakup of –
PUTNAM: And then you still have to ask why is the differential family breakup – and there’s two schools of thought of why the working-class family has collapsed. It has. It’s an interesting case in social science. There used to be disagreement about whether that was true, there now isn’t disagreement that the working-class family is really breaking up. Of all races. White and black.
KRISTOL: And that was controversial, wasn’t it?
PUTNAM: The thing that’s even more surprising – there’s now pretty broad agreement that that matters. That is, it matters for kids whether they’re growing up in an intact family that is – it’s the stability of the family structure that is really important as kids. Progressives like me say that just as firmly as conservatives do.
KRISTOL: You were saying, anyway, before the parenthesis that only a third roughly of the explanation is due to the family make-up. So that isn’t the bulk of it. Or the most of it.
PUTNAM: It isn’t. To put it statistically, if you look at kids coming from intact upper-class families and intact lower-class families, there’s a gap. The gap isn’t growing, it isn’t quite as big once you’ve taken out that fact, but, of course, you can’t take out that fact because it’s an important fact.
KRISTOL: So that’s genuinely worrisome, obviously.
PUTNAM: Of course, you have to ask, because here’s where Charles and I do disagree actually. Where did the breakup of the family come from, and how much of that is the 60s, by which – whatever we mean the 60s? The moral collapse and/or the welfare system – that is theory about it. And how much of it is the 80s? How much of the breakup of the working-class family is because the de-unionization of America, which meant all those working-class guys no longer have steady employment and haven’t had a raise for 30 or 40 years? I think the honest answer that is it’s both.
It is partly the normative question, and progressives have to talk honestly about that. It is, partly, this now 30-years-long, grinding lack of economic opportunity for working-class, less educated guys, and when I talk to thoughtful conservatives, which I do all the time actually, they say, of course, that’s right. And, this seems to me in principle, this whole problem of the opportunity –
KRISTOL: And incidentally since those people have moved conservative or Republican in their voting habits in the last 30 or 40 years, it’s actually something Republicans, in a way, feel more probably day to day, in the sense they are their voters. Ohio and Pennsylvania and stuff. The disparity between Trump supporters – which speaking here in January – and more conventional Republican voters, there’s a huge class difference now and education difference in the Republican primary. So that’s a way of manifesting, a political, I suppose, manifestation, of what you’re talking about.
PUTNAM: I think the problem that I’m talking about, which is this opportunity gap, which I know I’m going to sound hyperventilating here. I think that’s a fundamental problem because it goes to the very legitimacy, core of the American state.
And that’s not just me talking – and this is going to be terrible name-dropping – President Bush invited me to come to the White House to talk to him about something else, and I did, and then I talked to him about my graphs, and he kept me for a half of an hour. I’m not a major Republican campaign contributor, and I’m not a major conservative intellectual. Why did he keep me for a half hour? It’s very simple. Because if I was right about the growing opportunity gap, nobody in that building, nobody in that office could dismiss that because it goes to the very core of the legitimacy of this system. That is, this idea that everybody gets a fair shot.
I do think this is a problem that ought to be of interest across party lines. It’s a problem, in my view, a purple problem. By that, I mean parts of the problem you can understand most clearly through red, conservative lenses. You can see the collapse of the family most clearly through red, conservative lenses. Parts of the problem you can see most clearly through blue, progressive lenses. You see the closed factories and the shutdowns and deunionization and so on.
Purple problems – a lot of the problems in the world are purple problems, and in a different kind of America to solve that is you and I would sit down together and I’d say, “No, Bill, come on. Part of this is really is the minimum wage. We’ve got to talk about that.” And you’d say, “Bob, but part of this really is the value stuff. We’ve got to talk more about the values of stable families and so on.” And then in a realistic world we’d both say, “Yeah, you’re right, let’s figure out how to do that.” The problem with this extreme polarization of our politics now is you can’t have that kind of a conversation.
KRISTOL: Even if we could, I suppose it would be another thing to prove the policies we might each want to do will do much good. I guess that’s another question we could get to in a minute. But just to be clear, what you’re saying – and I think that’s powerful about what you’re saying – is not just is evidence of family breakup and/or social lack of social contact and bowling alone – and we suspect this will have bad consequences down the road. It seems to me what you’re saying is what you’ve discovered and I Think others are not eh same path that it is happening or has had already bad consequences. It’s not that sort of we speculate that people growing up in this environment, or people growing up in this society, are not going to be in as good shape 20 years from now as people growing up 40 years ago or 20 years ago if I got the math right there.
You’re saying that you can see the actual evidence.
PUTNAM: You won’t be able to see it in their lifetime incomes until they become adults. But if we wait until then it’s – it is like global warming. If you wait until you’re absolutely certain that it’s happening, you’ve lost another 30 or 40 years.
KRISTOL: But you do see evidence in school performance, and even income. It’s not like people who are 20 – you see the effect of this. Or incarceration. I guess what you’re saying is there is real, this is a real problem, not a likely problem we’re going to confront in the future.
PUTNAM: No it’s a real problem that we’re already confronting and if we don’t get a about it wit’s going to get much worse before it gets better because this is a problem that has long deep roots and you can’t turn it around. This is a ship of state that you can’t turn it around quickly. We’re talking about the structure of families, we’re talking about the built deeply into our society, these trends are.
And so even if you think as I do that there are things that we can do about it. And when I say we I don’t only mean the state I also mean churches and other organizations. That’s not going to happen overnight. This is a problem that’s a big problem that I think the country ought to take seriously.
KRISTOL: Social capital side is it the case that I guess this would be a question conforming your initial hypothesis, the wealthier types have more social capital and are bowling alone less so to speak, and that’s helping keep them afloat. You said they’re going up actually.
PUTNAM: Their kids are going up.
KRISTOL: Their kids are going up? They don’t need – they don’t need bowling leagues in a sense. That’s more important to the less well-off?
PUTNAM: Let me give you a very simple example actually. One of the reasons, one of the graphs that looks like this is taking part in extracurricular activities. Taking part in band or football or chorus or basketball or soccer or whatever has gone up for kids from college education homes, it’s going down for kids for working-class homes.
Even sports. And we have to ask well why is that? And an important part of the answer turns out to be that 20 years ago we started charging kids for taking part – it’s called pay to play. If you want to play football in my high school, my high school in Brooklyn Ohio in the 50s, you want to play football now you’ve got to pay a fee. Nationwide, the average fee for a year of sports is something like $1,600 dollars. If you’re annual income is $160,000, that’s a rounding error, but if you’re annual income is $16,000 dollars who in their right mind is going to spend 10 percent of their family income on football?
You might say, “Come on, Bob, worry something else, don’t worry about kids playing football.” but what we know actually is that playing sports and taking part in extracurricular activities has real measurable benefits on lifetime income. Holding constant test scores, college degrees and so on, people take part in extracurricular activates and not just football but band and chorus, do better. Why is that? Because they have soft skills. That the market is willing to pay more. They know how to do teamwork, they how stick-to-itiveness, my mom’s term for grit. That’s what people learn in extracurricular. So extracurricular are not a thrill, they’re an important part of the skill package that all kids nowadays have to have.
People coming from well-to-do backgrounds know that and they’re now paying a ton for their kids to have coaches and you know special summer camps for learning to sing or whatever. And working class people don’t. And that’s because we’ve, and this may be controversial with some of your audience, we’ve privatized the provision of those kinds of services. We’ve said it’s up to the parents to decide if they want to pay for their kids to have those skills. We don’t say if they you know, algebra, if your parents want you to have algebra they should pay for you to have algebra courses.
But, by the fact that it’s not that the upper-class hasn’t suffered from the decline of social capital, it’s they’ve been able to buy their way out of. I’m talking about me and my kids. I’m not trying to talk about somebody else. We’ve been able to buy our way out of this collapse of social connections. Does that make sense?
KRISTOL: I’m just curious, leaving aside the who provides it, whether it’s the public or the private or charitable organizations and one could imagine all kinds of mixtures and practical arguments about which way would work better. You could give people vouchers, there are all kinds of market friendly ways I suppose –
PUTNAM: By the way, the leading advocate for fixing this problem in the country is a Republican Secretary of State in Ohio, who’s trying to abolish pay-to-play in Ohio for exactly the reason I’m talking about.
KRISTOL: And what would be most important though? Is it extra activities – that’s interesting, I didn’t know that’s such a predictor. Other things if you were advising a country somewhere or a city somewhere or I suppose even a family there or a church that got requested $10 million that could spend it on anything it wanted to in terms of helping the families or people in its purview. What levels does intervention help at? Where would you focus?
PUTNAM: I’d focus on a lot of levels is the big problem, so if it were me I’d worry about how we could improve the economic conditions of the dads in these families that would enable them to stick with their families, encourage them to stick with their families, and provide more stable homes. That’s part of what I would do. I would also – wouldn’t mind preaching more about the importance of stable families, that’s what people on the Right are more likely to say, and I think that’s fine. I don’t object to that. Certainly don’t object to that.
But then coming away from that question, I think there are a lot of things that the private sector could do. Fundamentally, they involve – the technical term is mentoring – but that means having a stable adult in the lives of these poor kids. The one single fact that you can carry away from any of these stories in our book is it’s not just data, it’s stories. The data is there, too, but there’s stories. The poor kids in America are alone, they’re really isolated. They can’t trust their families because their families are breaking up. They can’t trust their teachers because they’re going to very poor schools. They can’t trust their churches because they’re no longer at church. They can’t trust their communities, because their communities are falling apart. They can’t trust their coaches because they’re not in sports. They lack any caring adult. I know that sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. They lack any kind of support that you gave to your children and grandchildren, that I gave to my children and grandchildren. They don’t have that in their lives.
I start with the premise, all kids do dumb things. Rich kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, brown kids, your kids, my kids. Kids get involved in drinking or they, God forbid, they get involved in drugs or they make a dumb romantic decision or they get in a fight with a teacher, or God knows what. When one of our kids – that is the upper-class kids – does a dumb thing, instantly airbags inflate to protect the kid from the consequences of the bad decision. So if one of my grandchildren, God forbid, should get involved with dugs, the first thing I’d do is find the best lawyer in the town, and the second thing is I’d find the best rehab facility in town.
If a poor kid of any race does exactly the same dumb thing, no airbags because they don’t have the same density of caring adults in their lives. I don’t mean – often, it’s a single mom and often she’s doing everything she can to try and hold her family together and earn a living and so on, so I’m not trying to demonize the mothers of poor kids. I am sometimes trying to demonize the dads of poor kids, but the fact of the matter is these kids in a way – that poor kids in America in the 1950s were not bereft of social support. This what the feel of what it’s like to live in a “bowling alone” society if you’re at that bottom of the heap.
If I had a magic wand, I’ve give every one of these poor kids a caring adult who could provide airbags. I’m talking in a million different ways could provide guidance to the kids, could do what I would do for my kids or grandchildren. What you would do for your kids or grandchildren. It’s not like this is rocket science there is nobody in their families who do that. Churches and synagogues in religious communities played a very big role in that historically, I’ve written a whole book which we haven’t talked about religion in American society.
But the churches – whether it’s the churches’ fault or not is a different question – have gotten disconnected from the working class. There’s another one of these graphs just like that, and therefore, if it were in my power, I would say to every clergy within America, “Think about not the kids who are already in Sunday school, but the kids in your community who need that kind of caring.”
KRISTOL: And you would not privilege, if that’s the right word, three-year-olds, or eight-year-olds or 15-year-olds. You would do it at every level, I take it. Is there data that shows it’s particularly effective or difficult to –
PUTNAM: Children need different kinds of things at different stages. We now know a lot about early brain development. And we know that it starts very early and we know that paying attention to kids, reading to kids, really young kids, makes a big difference.
So we know that there are huge long, really frightening, long-term effects of differences in care for kids. I don’t mean just custodial care, I mean interacting with them. In the book we call it goodnight moon time. Goodnight moon time has really a lot of power. The data shows this, they don’t have as much goodnight moon time as rich kids do. That’s the early stages. It’s not reading to them when they’re 16, it’s more providing role models and as I say airbags to help them – everybody makes mistakes, but the kids in poor circumstances live in a much less unforgiving world.
KRISTOL: How much – I was talking to someone who’s an Army officer actually, and we were chatting about this set of issues and he said – he has a hypothesis – he said his platoon was full of enlisted – he was an officer, a college graduate. His platoon was full of enlisted soldiers, and a lot of them came from difficult family situations. If you’re enlisted, you probably haven’t graduated from college, and maybe a lot of them haven’t gone to college and so they were enlisted because they were in tough scrapes when they were 16 or 17, and some adult told them, or maybe they just had the thought, the Army or Marine Corp would be good for them.
He said their lives were fairly – by conventional middle class standards – were messed up. You know, for a number of pregnancies out-of-wedlock that they had been involved in when they were a kid, or it just didn’t work out age 17 kind of thing. But he said he sort of thought these kids, that they would be okay. He said they’re not going to be okay the way we sort of expect a kid to smoothly progress through schooling and through marriage and kids and all, but – there would be kind of messy situations – but they would end up, you know, as valuable members of the community with jobs and with families, maybe they would be a bit messier than the families of 50 years ago and so forth.
I – one hopes that’s true and obviously, that’s going to be true with a number of them, but I guess what you’re suggesting is the data are not encouraging about the – You can’t just sit back and sort of think that this is going to work its way out in the wash.
PUTNAM: For several reasons. First of all, I do think the military has powerful benefits for many kids. I can tell you stories – I spoke at West Point about this not long ago, and I won’t filibuster but I could tell you stories about kids at West Point who have been able to turn their lives around. So I’m not on the other side of that issue.
KRISTOL: He wasn’t making a military point, but I guess you could argue it’s better to them to have been in that.
PUTNAM: The military is paternalistic. Paternalistic, as you well know, means parenting. But the first thing to say is because we have an all-volunteer Army, they have high standards, and the bottom 15 percent of the population couldn’t get into the military.
KRISTOL: So he’s already getting a sort of better –
PUTNAM: He’s getting the upper half of the bottom third. Can I put it that way? That means there’s a lot of kids down there who couldn’t even get it the military. Then, there are a lot of kids who don’t get in the military. I mean, I actually would be in favor of universal service. In fact, I would be. But in the real world that’s not going to happen. So in a way I’m completely agreeing with what he said, but saying that’s not – it’s a small sliver of what we need to do. And realistically, we’re not going to have, you know, 80 percent of all of our kids serving in the military so we have to have a plan for the not-military.
KRISTOL: He was making a point, which I guess you’re saying probably isn’t the case, that he wasn’t really – I mean, he believes also that the military is a good institution in that way. But I think he wasn’t making a military point, but maybe that we upper-class people who are more used to a more bourgeois kind of family life and career path, maybe we’re over-elite, pessimistic about the ability of these kids with less fortunate backgrounds to make their own way, in a messy way, to a pretty decent outcome. But you’re saying we’re –
PUTNAM: Come on.
KRISTOL: I think he was trying to look at the bright side.
PUTNAM: That could easily have been true in the 1950s when people were working in my hometown in the UAW and were working on assembly lines, and they could do well for themselves and do well for their kids. That isn’t true now. It’s a fairy tale. Partly because those of us on the upper branch have been getting better and better, we’re investing more time in our kids, more money in our kids, more and in productive ways. I don’t mean we’re just buying them things to say, “Go away,” but we’re very focused on our kids.
And I know you don’t want to be in the position of saying, “Well, it’s good for my kids that we’re doing all of these things for them, but these poor kids we don’t need to it for them.” That’s not what you’re saying, but somebody has to be worrying about these other kids.
KRISTOL: Final point in this but now immigrants, I suppose, will be an interesting. They’re interesting, just interesting, they’re part of the country so they’re important, but interesting as a social science question because you’re getting people coming in as. Well not all of them but a lot of them as adults. I guess you do get a little bit of a snapshot of what the mobility, possibilities are for economic mobility and for succeeding in many cases without some of the advantages of the language and so forth.
PUTNAM: The opportunities – sorry.
KRISTOL: Just curious what the data suggest about that. Was it better to be an immigrant 40 years ago than it was today? Sort of the way it was better to be a poor kid I guess 40 or 50 years ago than it was today?
PUTNAM: The two cases are quite different for several reasons. First of all immigrant families are much more intact than poor native born American families. Of all races, this is not about race. And therefore immigrant kids of immigrants are to some extent shielded from the larger for reasons that conservatives fully understand. They’re growing up in more intact families.
KRISTOL: But it’s not an answer to the problem to say, “Hey, look how well immigrant kids are doing.” If someone says there is no room for mobility in your society and we say, “Wait a second, we know in Fairfax Country, Virginia where I live there are all these people who are the sons and daughters of Vietnamese who came over who were very poor by definition when they came over since they didn’t exactly weren’t invited to take their belongings out of Vietnam or Cambodia, or even Southeast Asia and so forth.”
And they’re doing well. But what you’re saying is that’s fine, that’s good if that’s the case but it doesn’t really answer the problem you’re pointing your finger at.
PUTNAM: No, and while it’s true that some immigrant groups, especially from Asia, the adults have high upward mobility, it’s not true for all of them because all of them don’t have the same. They’re a self-selected group – that is we get, contrary to what some political candidates have said, we get the best Mexicans that come across the boarder.
KRISTOL: The ones that have the ability and the drive.
PUTNAM: They’re starting with a very low level of human capital. That is they don’t, most of the immigrants from Latin America who have come in have not been engineers or anything like that. In their first job, probably their lifetime job, is in manual work. And their kids are going to do better than the kids of native born annual workers because they’re families are more intact but they’re also kids are starting in poverty. And the poverty part of it doesn’t help the kids. So the next generation – Do I think immigration is a big success story in America? I absolutely do. You won’t find me not saying immigration is a big success story in America. But it’s not a way of saying stop worrying about these other poor kids, the immigrants are going to fix it for us.
And by the way, family stability in the second generation of immigrants goes, they revert to the American pattern, that is, families become less stable.
KRISTOL: Assimilation in this respect is bad for them.
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