Almost all Americans agree that our society ought to strive for equality of opportunity — that no child’s prospects should be limited by the circumstances of his or her birth. Yet achieving equality of opportunity in this sense is quite a bit harder than you might think. Throughout human history, parents have been motivated by a desire to better the lives of their children, and to this end parents routinely make sacrifices. It’s often said that fatherhood is a force that restrains the worst impulses of men, and that motherhood fills women with a powerful urge to protect their children from the dangers of the wider world. Parents save, in the hope of building wealth that they can pass on to their offspring, when they’d prefer to spend. They withstand petty indignities rather than lash out violently at those who insult or otherwise undermine them, to avoid landing in jail or worse, all to help ensure that they can continue to meet their familial obligations. The parental desire to fulfill these obligations hasn’t always been motivated by love or generosity of spirit alone: Fear of social disapproval has also played a role.
But what if parents were promised that, regardless of the choices they made, regardless of whether they planned carefully for the future or indulged in this or that vice, they could rest assured that it was the job of society to provide for their children? What if all parents came to believe that their own contributions to the well-being of their children were ultimately immaterial? According to this logic, one ought to expect the fortunes of children with absent fathers and those with attentive fathers to be essentially the same. Wouldn’t you expect that the texture of society would start to change if people came to take this idea seriously, and that many parents would free themselves from the straitjacket of guilt, deferred gratification, and exhaustion that has long been at the heart of child-rearing? Could it be that the goal of equality of opportunity is fundamentally confused, as the prospects of children raised by nurturing parents will necessarily tend to be brighter than those of children raised by parents who for whatever reason can’t or won’t provide the same spiritual nourishment? Even children raised by loving parents can find themselves overwhelmed by material deprivation, which is one of the many compelling arguments for a social safety net. Yet one wonders whether we’ve led recent generations of parents astray by suggesting that the life chances of their children aren’t ultimately in their hands.
To Robert Putnam, the renowned Harvard political scientist, the gap between the life chances of children raised in rich households and those raised in poor ones is a matter of grave concern. He is right. One can’t read Our Kids, his latest book, without being deeply moved by the challenges facing the poor children he describes, in a series of vivid portraits drawn from across the country. Putnam’s central observation is that because of rising inequality, the fates of rich and poor children in America are diverging. Though he acknowledges that it will take years before we have definitive proof that upward mobility for poor children is declining, and not just stagnant, he insists that we act now before it’s too late.
In making his case, Putnam observes that while race is growing less powerful as an obstacle to upward mobility, class is growing more so. Neighborhoods are less likely to be racially segregated today than in past decades, yet they are more likely to be segregated by income. Because children raised in poor neighborhoods tend to fare worse than children raised in non-poor neighborhoods, the rise of class segregation has profound consequences. Putnam draws on the work of Patrick Sharkey, a New York University sociologist and the author of Stuck in Place, a landmark study of neighborhood inequality. One of Sharkey’s most striking findings is that children raised in non-poor neighborhoods by parents raised in poor neighborhoods fare roughly as well on cognitive tests as children raised in poor neighborhoods by parents raised in non-poor neighborhoods, and that both groups of children fare better than those raised in poor neighborhoods by parents raised in poor neighborhoods — and far worse than children raised in non-poor neighborhoods by parents raised in non-poor neighborhoods. That is, the negative consequences of growing up in a deprived community appear to be transmitted from one generation to the next, while the same is true of the positive consequences of growing up in a more prosperous and well-functioning community.
According to Putnam, these positive consequences flow from the fact that non-poor neighborhoods tend to be more cohesive than poor neighborhoods, and community members are more likely to cooperate with one another to advance their collective interests — a phenomenon sociologists have dubbed “collective efficacy.” “Collective efficacy, reflected in trust in neighbors, is higher in richer, more educated neighborhoods, and that collective efficacy in turn helps all the young people in the neighborhood, regardless of family resources,” writes Putnam. If growing up in communities defined by high levels of trust benefits all children, regardless of income, it seems vitally important that we do what we can to cultivate trust. So it seems worth noting that in 2007, Putnam famously, and reluctantly, concluded that more-diverse neighborhoods tend to be defined by lower levels of trust than less-diverse neighborhoods. Though Putnam expresses the hope that this distrust can be overcome, he’s never offered a compelling roadmap as to how it can be.
Notably, Putnam generally defines “rich” parents as those who finished college and “poor” parents as those who did not, a definition that in a sense stacks the deck. Finishing college takes enormous self-discipline, particularly for those who weren’t raised in stable families, or a great deal of support from family and friends. If finishing college is best understood as a proxy for the combined effect of self-discipline and strong social networks, one wishes that we could more rigorously study the lives of those who don’t attend college, or who fail to finish, yet who are embedded in strong, supportive social networks.
Cultivating self-discipline and strengthening social networks have always been the work of families and communities. Now, however, as we see intensifying class segregation, and as fewer children are raised in neighborhoods with high levels of trust and collective efficacy, government must act to ensure equality of opportunity, Putnam argues. He touts the virtues of wage subsidies, investment in early-childhood education, and community colleges, among other fairly modest ideas. All of these programs are expensive, and chances are that they’d be even more expensive if government were to make a serious effort to use them as a substitute for the social support that only strong families and communities can provide.
Yet it’s not at all clear that even the most generously funded social programs will address the deeper problem, which is that our cultural turn away from harshly judging those parents who fail their children to averting our eyes from their shortsightedness and neglect has proven disastrous. Putnam himself is reluctant to blame parents, emphasizing instead that “to hold kids responsible for their parents’ failings violates most Americans’ moral sensibility.” This strikes me as a dodge. We imprison violent criminals, despite the fact that their aggression can often be traced to chaotic childhoods. We don’t do business with people who are dishonest and unreliable, though these traits may well have been survival mechanisms they developed as the children of neglectful parents. There is no way around holding kids responsible for their parents’ failings, which is why it is so essential that we remind parents of that fact at every opportunity.
And finally, one wonders why Putnam never makes an obvious but important point: Given the large number of poor children already residing in the United States, should we at the very least consider limiting future immigration to families that can more than adequately provide for their children? Immigration contributes enormously to America’s economic dynamism. Yet not all immigrants are the same: Some immigrants arrive in the U.S. with the skills and connections they need to enter the middle class, while others find that, while they’re better off than they were in their countries of origin, they lack those same skills and connections, and their only hope of leading dignified American lives is to rely on substantial, ongoing public assistance. If we as a society are struggling to provide poor children with the resources they need to thrive, we should stop biting off more than we can chew.