Sometimes we can tell we’ve been lucky. But often we can’t, and that makes it all but impossible to comprehend poverty. (More)

Polar Economy, Part II: Communities of Deprivation

This week Morning Feature looks at our increasingly polar economy. Yesterday we began with communities of opportunity that open doors to wealth and privilege. Today we see communities of deprivation that are difficult for the working poor to escape. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how to bridge these gaps, and why we must.

“She is a granddaughter of Port Clinton”

Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam is on a mission to teach students – and elected leaders – that poverty is about more than individual choices:

Robert Putnam wants a show of hands of everyone in the room with a parent who graduated from college. In a packed Swarthmore College auditorium where the students have spilled onto the floor next to their backpacks, about 200 arms rise.

“Whenever I say ‘rich kids,’ think you,” Putnam says. “And me. And my offspring.”

For Putnam, the most yawning gap in our society is not between the 1% and the rest of us. Instead, it is the gap between children whose parents have college degrees, who read to them as infants, take them to dance class and soccer practice, enroll them in SAT prep classes, nudge them toward top colleges, help them find mentors and build professional networks – the communities of opportunity we discussed yesterday – and children whose parents struggle to survive.

Some of his classmates from Port Clinton in the 1950s, meanwhile, stayed for manufacturing jobs that later disappeared. Their children faced rising unemployment and stagnating wages. A third generation was born poor, often without two parents.

Pacing the floor like a preacher, Putnam conjures their fate through the story of a real-life Port Clinton child, whom he calls “Mary Sue.” At 5, her parents split. Her mother became a stripper. For days at a time, she was alone and hungry.

“She is a granddaughter of Port Clinton, just as my granddaughter is a granddaughter of Port Clinton,” Putnam says. And no matter how often he repeats this line – which he does frequently in front of any group of politicians, students or voters who will listen – it always comes out anguished.

“The habits and virtues of its citizens”

For the New York Times’ David Brooks, Putnam’s research reflects a clear moral failure. Specifically, he says, Americans haven’t been judgmental enough:

The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another.

His colleague Paul Krugman dissected that argument neatly:

So, how could you test that hypothesis [that fewer opportunities reduce marriage rates]? Well, here’s an experiment: change the structure of the economy in such a way that a large class of white men – say, white men without a college degree – similarly lose access to good jobs. If Wilson was right, we’d expect to see a sharp decline in stable marriages, a rise in unwed births, growing drug use, and other forms of social disruption.

And that is, in fact, exactly what happened: William Julius Wilson was right. Which makes it remarkable to see people look at that very evidence and say that it shows that the real problem isn’t money, it’s values.

“You were getting some advantage that somebody else out there – Mary Sue – was not”

And Salon’s Jordan Weissmann notes that Putnam agrees, to a point:

Of the values-versus-economics debate, he says simply that, “The most reasonable view is that both are important.” How come? For one, we can look back to the Great Depression as an historical counterpoint to the trends we’ve witnessed in recent decades. With mass unemployment, the marriage rate tumbled during the 1930s, “showing the perennial importance of economic stability in the marriage calculus.” At the same, however, the birth rate also fell, and unwed childbearing remained rare. “In that era, men and women postponed procreation as well as matrimony,” Putnam writes. “‘No marriage license, no kids’ was the cultural norm. Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored.”

But Putnam also recognizes that simply moralizing about sex is not the solution. The deeper problem, he argues, is the gulf between communities of opportunity and those of the working poor:

He starts throwing graphs on the screen behind him that reflect national trends mirrored in Port Clinton: rising income inequality, growing class segregation, the breakdown of the working-class family.

They all look ominously similar. Each graph shows two lines diverging over the past several decades in the experiences of American kids at the top and bottom: in the share born to single mothers, in the chances that they’ll eat family dinners, in the time parents spend reading to them, in the money families invest in their clubs and lessons.

“Every summer camp you went to or every piano lesson you got or every time you went to soccer club, you were getting some advantage,” Putnam says, “that somebody else out there – Mary Sue – was not.”
His manifesto, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, will be published Tuesday. It places brain science, sociology and census data alongside stories of children growing up on both sides of the divide. Many of the findings draw on the work of other researchers who have long studied families, education or neuroscience. But Putnam has gathered these strands under a single thesis: that instead of talking about inequality of wealth or income among adults, we ought to focus on inequalities in all of the ways children accumulate – or never touch – opportunity.

The gaps he identifies have been widening on both ends: Better-off families are spending ever-more money on their children. They’re volunteering even more at their schools. Their children are pulling away as Mary Sue falls further behind, and her original mistake was simply, as Putnam puts it, that she chose her parents badly.

The “criminalization of poverty”

Add to this the ways we ration opportunity in adulthood. Studies show that leaders tend to see “leadership potential” in people who look like themselves: race, gender, appearance, and background. They are more likely to delegate tasks and authority to such people, and those delegations present opportunities for growth and advancement. Much of that is subconscious, a function of implicit biases that most of us don’t even know we carry.

At the other end of the spectrum, the working poor are increasingly targets of police and court systems like those the DOJ excoriated in Ferguson, Missouri:

Poor people, especially people of color, face a far greater risk of being fined, arrested, and even incarcerated for minor offenses than other Americans. A broken taillight, an unpaid parking ticket, a minor drug offense, sitting on a sidewalk, or sleeping in a park can all result in jail time. In this report, we seek to understand the multi-faceted, growing phenomenon of the “criminalization of poverty.”

An Institute for Policy Studies report, released this week, highlighted five key ways this happens:

  • the targeting of poor people with fines and fees for misdemeanors, and the resurgence of debtors’ prisons – the imprisonment of people unable to pay debts resulting from the increase in fines and fees;
  • mass incarceration of poor ethnic minorities for non-violent offenses, and the barriers to employment and re-entry into society once they have served their sentences;
  • excessive punishment of poor children that creates a “school-to-prison pipeline”;
  • increase in arrests of homeless people and people feeding the homeless, and criminalizing life-sustaining activities such as sleeping in public when no shelter is available; and
  • confiscating what little resources and property poor people might have through “civil asset forfeiture.”

“It’s a form of isolation”

The children of working class families often have to navigate that maze alone:

Through their eyes, coaches and teachers were gatekeepers who extended opportunity only to chosen students.

Their view of the world around them is a deeply lonely one. And it exposes an inverse reality among the privileged that Putnam admits he did not previously see even in the lives of his own children: Take away the parents who drive you to soccer, the peers you know who went off to college, the neighbor who happens to need a summer intern – and childhood is bewildering. A task as simple as picking the right math class becomes another trapdoor to failure.

The privileged kids don’t just have a wider set of options. They have adults who tailor for them a set of options that excludes all of the bad ones.

Meanwhile, for a child like Sofia, “she’s just completely directionless, because life happens to her,” Putnam says. “What she’s learned her whole life is that life is not something you do, it’s something you endure.”

Putnam is trying to reach as wide an audience as he can. He met with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who said Putnam’s work helped him see that “Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s a form of isolation, too.”

And that may explain why Putnam’s solutions focus on empathy and volunteerism:

“If we can begin to think of these poor kids as our kids,” he says, “we would not sleep for a second before we figured out how to help them.”
Putnam’s solutions are not particularly novel. He wants more investment in early childhood education and criminal justice reform so more low-income men can find work and raise their own babies. He wants religious groups to take up the problem of mentoring. He wants public schools to end “pay to play” fees for after-school sports.

Those solutions would help, but tomorrow we’ll see that there’s more we can do to bridge the gulf in our polar economy.


Happy Friday!