Putnam and Poverty, Part 1

It’s not often a 74-year-old professor gets a standing ovation from a public audience for an hour-long lecture with many graphs. But Robert Putnam gave a barnburner of a speech last night at Georgetown University’s Strategic Summit of Catholics and Evangelicals on Poverty. John Carr, the Initiative’s director, called Putnam “an Old Testament prophet with charts,” and he certainly had the fervor, but appealingly, the lecture was more earnest exhortation than prophetic denunciation. In an age where prophetic denunciation gets more headlines, Putnam is trying to tell a story about poverty – and specifically kids in poverty – that can unite us as a society. Anger is not front and center; rather earnestness and clear vision are his hallmarks. And he can still get a standing ovation.

Putnam’s talk kicked off two days of meetings, which will today include the President, on how Catholics and Evangelicals together can address the “purple problem” of kids in poverty. As Michael Gerson on the panel after Putnam’s talk put it, Putnam “has given us an ideologically inclusive account of the problem.” Many of the panelists wrestled with precisely this conundrum: how much of this problem has to do with individual bad behavior, and how much of it has to do with structural problems (of many sorts).

The summit promises to move this conversation forward via the both/and on this question, which is frankly a really exciting prospect. In fact, Carr formulated an image of contemporary society as a table held up by four legs: individuals and families, civil society groups, market actors (businesses), and government actors. The problem, Carr says, is “in DC, everyone falls in love with one leg of the table.” Carr, and his Evangelical counterpart in organizing the Summit, Leith Anderson, want the churches to help break this impasse.

Putnam is helping in two key ways. First, his entire presentation (and book) frames the issue of inequality in a particular way. Americans, he says, are by and large comfortable with some significant degree of inequality of outcome, but that our comfort with this is based on the idea that everyone gets an equal shot. That is to say, we are much more committed to equality of opportunity – and our acceptance of inequality of outcome is based on this. An example? Nothing will get many of my male students more up in arms than sports stars who are “cheaters” – students almost uniformly think that baseball players like Barry Bonds have done something very wrong. Add to this the recent “Deflategate.” The problem in both cases is the same: the cheating meant that not everyone started in the same place. Some people got a head start. And we generally do not like that.

We especially do not like to think that some kids get head starts simply because of the lottery of birth. This is a bit of a myth – and yet it is likely a good myth, one somewhat indebted to Christianity’s promise of new birth at baptism, and one that encourages people not to be held back because of the world into which they were born. Putnam’s book is fundamentally premised on the idea that, especially through the reforms of the early 20th century Progressives, we built a society in the 1950s and 1960s where the promise of equal opportunity was achieved to a remarkably high extent. Not completely, of course. But to a considerate degree.

That society is no more. That’s the story he’s telling: 50 years after the War on Poverty, his endless series of “scissors graphs” depict the rapid and often dramatic divergence of a whole range of factors based on whether a child was born to college-educated parents (and increasingly, the college-educated marry the college-educated) or to parents with a high school degree or less. In our society, he argues, we are considerably less likely (than 50 years ago) to be segregated in our neighborhoods, our social networks, our schools, even our marriages from people of different races or religions. But we are much more likely to be segregated by class, with education as the proxy for class. And this leaves poor kids isolated – the one message, Putnam said, we should all write in our notebooks. The isolation means that they have no “air bags” – this is his image for the fact that, to a greater or lesser extent, kids hit problem spots, challenges, and frustrations, and for well-off kids, when this happens, “air bags inflate” to cushion the impact and (hopefully) allow for learning from the mistake. Putnam is clear that this is a good thing. But for many poor kids, the utter absence of genuine, stable relationships of trust and love – combining with isolation from social institutions and economic limitations – means no air bags. These kids get scarred and hardened very quickly. Putnam is not talking about spoiling kids; rather, he is saying that the development of discipline and agency happens in a context of being able to come out “alive” from mistakes.

Even this brief description of the problem indicates its complexity. Catholic social thought, I think, provides three resources that are key for addressing this problem. The first has to do with the role of work and the labor market. In what is the single most overlooked papal social encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II provided a remarkable positive vision of the human dignity of work. The “objective dimension” of work – providing for “our daily bread” and developing the efficiency of the productive resources of the society – is important. But even more important is work’s “subjective dimension,” the idea that work is meant to be “a good thing for our humanity” and provide a way for us to develop as human beings.

Several panelists and discussants, of different ideological persuasions, noted the fundamental change in the labor market from Putnam’s era of equality to today. Due especially to globalization and automation, the labor market has rapidly shed low-skill and even middle-skill jobs that pay a decent wage. And even beyond the wage issue, the jobs that currently exist are subject to “temporarization” – they are unstable, shifting, and lack possibilities for flexibility and steady advancement. This is a major reason why education is the decisive variable in the divide: the more educated are increasingly more valuable to the labor market, whereas those who are unsuccessful at and/or deprived of education have a much more difficult time ever finding a stable place.

Extensive arguments over issues like minimum wage legislation, refundable tax credits, and maternal leave policies are important – but none of these are silver bullets, not least because each has real if unintended consequences. There is no question that minimum wage legislation does raise wages for a set of workers who are desperately in need of a raise. But it also means employers will look to globalization and automation to reduce the number of workers. So while many workers benefit, some workers lose – even if this number is small, economists point out that the losers are likely to be those who are the most marginal in the labor market, and thus most in need of any steady employment process. Catholic social teaching can help by putting these mechanical solutions in a broader context: making work more humane. This is not some nice frill; it is not sufficient to pay a worker a couple dollars more an hour, but still subject them to bad (or even worse) conditions. On the other hand, workers whose work contributes to their dignity will be more likely to develop other “soft skills,” which are passed on to children and which allow for (among other things) more community involvement. Helen Alford and Michael Naughton rightly suggest that closer attention to job design can help business address both these dimensions at the same time. More creative job designs help companies increase worker productivity, while also enhancing the subjective dimension of the job.

A second resource CST offers is a robust vision of the dignity of marriage and the family. Putnam pointed out that, when confronted with the scissors graphs, President George W. Bush responded with “the right first question”: how much of this is due to the breakdown of family structure? The increase in what is termed “multiple partner fertility” alarms even very liberal social scientists who study the problem. It no longer is a matter of trying to keep marriages together. Rather, it is a matter of a tattered, chaotic set of genuinely horrifying relationships… all the whole paralleled by a college-educated population who have passed through the sexual revolution and, in many ways, are living family lifestyles not very far removed from the 1950s.

The panel – and Putnam himself in his book – wrestled with this problem. In some ways analogous to the labor market problem, this isn’t a transformation that can be easily reversed, and is perhaps even less susceptible to simple policies. In the broader social science literature, two things stand out on this issue. One is that, even in the midst of this breakdown, most people continue to state that they value marriage and family. This is something of a paradox, since people’s statements about what they value and their actual choices are not always in line, and the causes of this phenomenon (in any area of life) are challenging. As I noted earlier, most Americans state the value of hard work and not cheating – but plenty of people shirk work and cheat, too. Nevertheless, the literature does make a second point that is illuminating: many women especially do not see marriage-able men in their lives, and they turn to childbearing as (in Andrew Cherlin’s words) “the reward they can get.” Putnam told the story of one of his study participants – who has had a very hard childhood, virtually abandoned by her birth parents – who recently posted on her facebook page that her problem is that no one loves her, and her solution to the problem is to have a baby, because “the baby will love me.” You could feel the consternation of the well-heeled Georgetown audience at this story, which Putnam told with frankness but also compassion.

Sometimes the Catholic vision of marriage is put in individualistic terms of personal values. But when I teach it, I use Pope John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio, which insists equally on the social and ecclesial mission of families. Students almost always find this revelatory… and refreshing. And it offers a way of communicating some of Putnam’s important findings, like the importance of shared dinners, informal social connections among families, and above all, the idea that all kids are “our kids.” The Church at its best can offer a vision of family that is not privatized, where the family is focused not simply inward, but outward, In order to be effective, the Church’s vision of family must be a lived vision that is engaged with others who need to see its desirable possibilities. We need to practice it, more than we need to preach it.

Finally, Catholic social teaching has embraced the importance of “intermediate associations” – the very ones Putnam showed in radical decline in his Bowling Alone. Frankly, it would be hard to overestimate the role of intermediate associations (or their absence) in Putnam’s story of both well-off and poor kids. Mentoring, informal social network, extracurriculars at school, supportive church communities – all function in deeply formative ways, and perhaps especially are there to make up for the inevitable inadequacies of all parents, both rich and poor. However important proper health care funding is, it can’t play the role of mentor or encouragers or discipliner. It simply can’t.

In this way, the Catholic Church itself might be a crucial intermediate association… if we can think creatively about these connections. While geographical parishes increasingly mirror the class segregation in our society, dioceses offer opportunities to overcome these problems. The Church is still everywhere, and as Bishop Soto on the panel noted, it can promote a fundamental “culture of encounter,” where we can break through the isolation and become one Body.


David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads