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A number of books and articles in recent years have focused on the problem of income inequality. But surprisingly few have looked at how this pattern is affecting the lives of American children.

This book admirably fills that gap. Robert D. Putnam argues that sharp disparities in income, education, and family structure have converged to create a class divide that separates many of today’s kids into two starkly divergent groups. In one group, children are growing up with two college-educated parents, both potentially high earners, in spacious houses located in safe neighborhoods. Their parents shower them with lavish opportunities to develop their talents, gain important work and life skills, and prepare them for future college and career success. These kids attend highly ranked high schools, with AP classes and a hundred or more clubs. They have the option of choosing from a rich menu of extracurricular activities—drama, art, music, sports, debate, sailing, horseback riding, and water polo—provided by their parents, schools, and communities. They go on to top-ranked colleges.

In the other group, children are growing up with one or more high-school educated parents who work in low-wage jobs. The household composition may change. Sometimes the household is headed by a single parent; sometimes by a parent and partner; sometimes by a parent and step-parent. These adults struggle to provide the basics for their kids. The families move a lot. The kids land in neighborhoods described as war zones, attend failing high schools or do a stint in Job Corps, and have not much else to do in their economically decimated communities except hang out.

The class divide is deep. It slices through nearly every domain of children’s lives: their families, neighborhoods, schooling, and community life, reproducing advantage for the already advantaged and disadvantage for the already disadvantaged.

It is also wide. “Chasm” might be a better word. Upper-tier families are residentially segregated from lower-tier families. Each tier lives isolated from the other. Parents on one side know almost nothing about parents on the other side. They share few common child-rearing experiences. Worse, there are no institutional bridges to span the divide and to bring lower-tier kids into the schools, parks, and playgrounds of the upper tier.

In Putnam’s telling, this separate and unequal pattern is more than a social problem. It is a social tragedy. It means that kids’ opportunities and future life chances are increasingly dependent on the families they are born into, rather than the society they belong to.

Our Kids presents stories of white, black, and Hispanic parents and their young-adult children living on either side the divide. These stories, based on interviews conducted in diverse communities, are intended to be illustrative rather than representative, Putnam says. Nonetheless, they reveal in unsparing detail how vastly separate and unequal the lives of American children have become. Indeed, it is hard to convey how extreme the divide is without summarizing one of the stories in the book. Meet Chelsea and David, white kids in Port Clinton, Ohio, a small town on the shores of Lake Erie, where Putnam himself grew up in the middle of the last century. Chelsea has grown up with her married parents and brother in a large house overlooking a lake. Her father is a corporate manager. Her mother has a graduate degree and now works part-time, though she chose to stay at home to devote attention to her children when they were young. Both Chelsea’s parents were intensely involved in their children’s upbringing, pushing the kids to achieve and intervening when they needed an advocate at school or a helper to hot-glue prom decorations in the middle of the night. Her parents cultivated the “soft” social skills as well. The family ate dinner together every night, in order, her mother says, to teach the kids “how to discourse with other people.” Her mother organized fun too. She threw themed birthday parties for Chelsea every year—Barbie Princess when she turned six, Academy Awards (with limo pickup for guests) when she turned eleven. When Chelsea was a teen, her parents built a 1950s-style diner in their basement to provide a safe place for their daughter and friends to hang out. Chelsea and her brother always knew they would go to college, and both did. Now aiming for law school, Chelsea says her parents and other adults helped push her in the right direction. She is content with “what I am doing in life.”

Then there is David. At eighteen, David is carrying big responsibilities. He is the single father of a young daughter and the watchful older brother of nine half-siblings who have no consistent parent or adult caregiver. His early life was full of turbulence and loss. His mother left him when he was little. Although she lives somewhere in Port Clinton, he doesn’t know where. His father, who had custody, was in and out of prison. David lived with his paternal grandmother and, for a time, with his father’s girlfriend, who was “crazy” and on drugs. His schooling was equally chaotic. He attended seven elementary schools, got into fights, and was sent to “behavior school.” Eventually he transferred to a high school and graduated, “mostly because he got school credit for working at Big Bopper’s Diner.” His girlfriend, the mother of his daughter, left him to live with a boyfriend who, like her, is a drug addict. In a Facebook posting in 2014, he wrote: “I’ll always end up on the losing end.... I’ll never get ahead. ”

 

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There are several contrasts that can be drawn here, of course, but one strikes me with particular force: it is the profound difference in the emotional lives of these two young people, as well as others profiled in the book. Kids like Chelsea are secure, supported by the important adults in their lives, and confident about their future prospects. Kids like David are insecure, confused, and despairing. They believe that no one cares or helps or even notices them. They see the world as “unpredictable, intractable, malign.”

A large literature tells us that the emotional lives of kids, rich or poor, are highly dependent on the strength and quality of their early attachments. Secure bonds provide all kinds of emotional and cognitive advantages that persist into adulthood. Insecure bonds, on the other hand, leave kids unmoored, untrusting, and unready for the challenges of adult life.

These crucial early attachments are formed and nurtured in families, and ideally by two parents who are committed to each other and to their children’s healthy development. But more and more kids like David are growing up without strong attachments, and often without any consistent care at all. Their family lives are marked by multiple losses. Fathers die, disappear, or end up in prison. Mothers take off as well, carried away by new boyfriends and by the powerful tug of drug addiction. (The trend of wayward mothers is about the worst social indicator anyone can imagine.) A stream of other adults—step-parents, grandparents, step-grandparents, parents’ partners, and strangers who crash on the couch—flow through kids’ households. As if that weren’t enough, the kids also have to deal with a “confusing web” of step-siblings, half-siblings, and children brought into the household by parents’ partners.

Most troubling, the attachment deficit begins in the cradle. The absence of affectionate and reliable nurturing is hard to remediate or reverse later on. More to the point, today’s emotionally impoverished kids are becoming parents themselves, often too soon, and without the models or capacity to nurture their own kids. This extends the deficit into the next generation and generations beyond, contributing to an all-but-inevitable hardening of the class divide.

If there is one disappointment in this illuminating book, it comes with the “what is to be done” chapter at the end. Putnam offers a list of suggestions for improving opportunities for the kids whose bleak and troubled lives he so powerfully describes. In the main, his proposals fall into two categories: more money for poor parents and more educational opportunities for poor kids. The benefits of these policies are likely to make marginal, but nonetheless worthwhile, improvements in the earning capacity of both parents and children. At the same time, however, it is not clear how they will help bring parents and children back together or how they will end what Putnam calls the “dreadful chaos” in the lives of our kids.

Published in the June 12, 2015 issue: 

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.

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