Putnam misses the mark

In his new book, "Bowling Alone" author spotlights a growing opportunity gap, but parents are not to blame for lack of mobility

ROBERT PUTNAM, THE Harvard political scientist famous for his book Bowling Alone, has a new book out that powerfully documents the steady widening of the “opportunity gap” for children in the United States. This widening gap, he argues in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is threatening the very core of the American Dream. A particularly striking data point that Putnam uses to drive this home is that children’s socioeconomic status now matters more than their academic ability in predicting whether they will graduate from college.

Putnam’s thorough research is sure to reignite dialogue about mobility and opportunity for kids in the US.  In fact, he has stated that his personal goal is to make this a major issue for the 2016 presidential election. And I hope he is successful. Giving all children an opportunity to succeed is absolutely integral to the future of our nation, and we need respected voices like Putnam’s to drive this home.

Putnam - Our Kids cover jacketHowever, I believe there is a critical flaw Putnam’s approach to understanding why the opportunity gap exists: He implicitly casts blame on low-income parents for their children’s lack of achievement. It is possible to listen to his arguments and come to the conclusion that the reason children in poverty are not escaping their socioeconomic situation is because the behavior of their parents is blocking them from achieving economic mobility.

But the parents are not to blame for this; poverty itself is to blame. Poverty itself imposes limits on the amount of time, money, bandwidth, and energy low-income parents have to give to their children. In addition, the stresses of poverty— including trauma, racism, and the daily chronic stress of uncertainty caused by living in conditions of scarcity—wreak havoc on both adults and children.

As we know from recent advances in neuroscience, which Putnam refers to his book, the stresses of poverty have profound impacts on the brain functioning of both parents and children. This stress especially affects executive functioning, the brain’s ability to juggle multiple tasks, plan for the future, and respond creatively to challenges.

The parents of children living in poverty are not “bad” parents—any of us would be affected in the exact same way if we lived under the constant burden of this kind of stress. Low-income parents are no different from other parents. All parents have snapped at their children after a stressful day, or have sat the kids down in front of the TV when too tired to do anything else. Imagine living your most stressful day, every day, with no hope of a vacation, and then imagine how you might respond to your child.

The way to help “our kids” cross over the opportunity gap and move out of the intergenerational cycle of poverty is not to cast blame on the parents and view them as a problem. These parents—like all parents—want what’s best for their children. Instead, we must view the parents as our most important allies in the struggle to close the opportunity gap. They must be part of the solution because they are children’s first and most important teachers, advocates, and mentors.

Decades of interventions focused on low-income children have shown only moderate successes in closing achievement gaps. The only way to realize significant, transformative change is to work with families—whole families, however they are defined by the family—to align around shared goals and create new strategies for success through intensive coaching and building of support systems that will help undo the negative effects of stress. We also need systems that reduce, instead of add to, the stresses of poverty.

Meet the Author

While I appreciate Putnam’s important work in this field, and I sincerely hope that he will be successful in putting the issue of the opportunity gap in the national spotlight, we as a nation need to better appreciate the effects of poverty on low-income families.  If we truly care about “our kids,” we need to recognize the importance of their parents and do a better job of involving them in our attempts to close the gap.

Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga is director of the Intergenerational Mobility Project at Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston nonprofit focused on helping low-income women and their families achieve economic independence.