Review of Robert Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids”: strong on vivid individual stories illustrating the problems; weaker on showing solutions

Robert Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids”, does an excellent job of telling individual stories of the American poor, and in particular recounting how their lives are affected by their experiences in childhood and adolescence.  (Robert Putnam is a political science professor at Harvard, perhaps best known for his work on the importance of social capital in societies, most famously in his book “Bowling Alone“.) These stories encourage insight and empathy with the constraints that inhibit equal opportunities for all Americans. Among the constraints are family and parenting problems, troubled neighborhoods, bad schools, and lack of sufficient quality job opportunities. But these constraints are illustrated through individual stories more than through the usual social science data presentation.

The book is weaker on providing solutions. The book does outline some policy solutions to enhance opportunities for persons growing up in low-income families, including: income transfers for low-income families, parenting improvement programs, preschool, and school improvements. However, these solutions are only relatively briefly outlined in one chapter. The book does not present detailed enough program proposals that allow the specific costs and benefits of the various proposals to be discussed.

As a result, I think many readers will not believe that these solutions will come close to solving the overwhelming problems that are made so vivid in the individual stories presented in the bulk of the book. I think it is important for policy wonks to make clear what specifically their proposed policies will do to solve the problems identified in their policy analysis , as I have tried to do in my own work, for example in my recent book on preschool, outlining both benefits and costs.

In addition, the book spends relatively little time on outlining how policy solutions might address the overall structure of opportunities in the American economy. In other words, the book is more concerned with improving the quality of the poor’s labor supply, rather than addressing labor demand: the number of good jobs available to all Americans including the poor. A more comprehensive anti-poverty strategy for helping all our kids should include both labor supply and labor demand approaches, as I have argued before.

However, in a society that seems to become more divided over time, “Our Kids” will help many readers empathize with the children of the underclass, and better understand the challenges they face in growing up and succeeding. This increased empathy may help motivate some readers to support finding better solutions to improve opportunities for all of “Our Kids”.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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