Tag: Our Kids

Taking the Long View: Robert Putnam’s The Upswing

The acknowledgements section of The Upswing contains a surprising note from Robert Putnam. In thanking his wife, he confesses that he had promised her that his 2015 Our Kids would be his last book. It was interesting to read his apology at the end of the book as it brings forth the big question of what motivated him to write it.

In many ways, Putnam picks up the themes he addressed in Bowling Alone, American Grace, and Our Kids. In all three books, he had explored society’s turn away from more traditional communitarianism. In the first, he argued that people were less likely to belong to community organizations. In the second, he (and co-author David Campbell) documented the major changes in American religion in the second half of the 20th century. In the third, he examined the ways in which economic and social inequality were replicated in American families — a condition he felt was very different from his own upbringing in 1950s small town Ohio.

What’s different about Upshift is the timeframe that he used. Rather than beginning somewhere mid-20th century, as these analyses often do, he begins in 1913. That longer timeline provides a different perspective in that what had looked like decline is seen as increase, plateau, and then decline. Examining a range of data points on economic, political, social, and cultural variables, he argues that the composite factors lay out in a curvilinear fashion with moves toward increased economic fairness, political compromise, social stability, and social responsibility for the first 50 years before reversing, in many ways ending even up worse than they were in the Gilded Age.

[As an aside, I should mention a quick analysis I did a few years ago on membership in the United Methodist Church. We tend to focus on the post-70s decline but the slope of the growth curve prior to 1950 creates exactly this curve.]

For each of the four factors Putnam explores, a similar pattern emerges. Take economics for example. There is data on the growth of educational attainment in the early part of the century. This is complimented with changes to income and wealth over time, shifts in tax policy, and the degree of upward mobility. In each of those areas, there is a move toward lessened inequality in post WW2 society which plateaus until the early 1970s and then falls precipitously (Putnam always orients “better” as “up”.) This argument is very similar to what Robert Reich argued in his 2011 Aftershock, where a period of general middle class economic wellbeing gives way to increased concentration of wealth at the top of the income/wealth spectrum.

Unfortunately, Putnam doesn’t share the equations used to combine all of his various indices into the solid line summary shown above. If you aren’t statistically inclined, you might be glad of that but I was frustrated by not being able to conceptually understand how all these features come together.

The politics chapter uses data on voting patterns, ticket splitting, attitudes toward the other party, faith in government, and belief in government operations. These improve over the first half of the time period before falling rapidly to levels today below those early in the 20th century.

The society chapter draws on religion, family, marriage and children, membership in social organizations, union engagement, and generalized social trust. The cultural chapter (probably the weakest) uses Ngrams from publishing to show how individual focus (for example on wanting unique baby names) give way to consensus (common baby names) and back. The authors contrast the prevalence of “rights” language as opposed to “responsibility” language.

Putnam and Garrett have a chapter on Race and a chapter on Gender. In each chapter, they demonstrate the ways in which the general upward patterns present in the previous chapters didn’t work the same way for Blacks and Women. This is helpful data in exploring the uniqueness of these subgroups within society but I found it somewhat confusing in that they were part of generic data present in the previous chapters. Putnam asserts that the most significant period of economic and social strengthening for Blacks was in the period immediately prior to the 1964-65 civil rights legislation. He also argues that the growth in the role of Women in society was more significant in the first half of the century than it was after the 1970s feminist movement. The picture of Women in society is limited by data showing women working out of economic necessity and still being burdened by the “second shift” problem of being responsible for household duties.

In many ways, I came away from The Upswing feeling that it was a marvelous compilation of data in search of a coherent explanatory framework. In the closing chapter, the authors struggle to find the theoretical answer to what drives the patterns in the curves above. Does economic inequality drive political isolation? Is it a shift away from religion or traditional family that drives cultural individualism? Which ones are the leading indicators and which are lagging indicators?

The authors examine a number of changes between 1968 and 1978. Beginning with the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, riots ranging from Detroit to the Chicago Democratic Convention to Student protests of the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the stagflation that burdened the Carter administration. They suggest that these social disruptions pit sectors of society against each other, substituting subgroup passions for a collective sense of social identity.

The book, while commendable for exploring such a long time horizon, would have benefitted from a better theoretical orientation. I would argue that economic inequality is a principal driver with the political sphere being a direct result of that. The social and cultural realms respond to those two structural conditions. Yes, I’m an economic determinist who believes that ideological structures are built as representations of core distributions of money and power. (That’s more Weber than Marx, by the way.)

I was also surprised at the relative inattention to the huge impact of suburbanization as driver of social change, especially as encouraged by government policy. Media could also have used more attention as a mechanism through which social changes are labeled (even today protests are framed as destruction of property).

In working through tremendous data over the span on a century, the book seems to miss the role of power in creating the shifts the authors document. One of the dynamics of social change is that powerful structures can stand in the way. Every one of the social disruptions of “the sixties” became an opportunity for upstart groups to challenge the powers-that-be. But they also become an opportunity for those powers-that-be to keep those upstart groups at bay or to coopt them or to redirect their efforts in ways that protect basic structures.

This morning, my friend Paul Djupe shared an analysis arguing that Christian Nationalists weren’t dealing with concerns over potential oppression but over a concern for Social Dominance. I think that argument can be generalized to explain that changes Putnam documents. One of Paul’s scale questions dealt with the idea that people should “stay in their place.”

The more social changes might demand accommodation from those with who held power in the periods of quiet consensus, the more those in power will push back. Economic inequality, political polarization, social isolation, and loss of “the common good” might be a small price to pay to maintain the status quo.

Why We Can’t Have Serious Conversations About Situations Like Baltimore

http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg
http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg

deltaskymag.delta.com
deltaskymag.delta.com

These two pictures illustrate a couple of the answers to my title question.  In searching for a picture to accompany this post, I went to Google Images and simply typed in “Baltimore”. The first 57 pictures were images like the bottom one — the skyline and the inner harbor. Only then did I get to the picture on top. Not only are these two images of Baltimore both accurate, but it is essential to understand how the two images are related.

The title of this post comes from a series of things I posted on Facebook earlier this week. Far too many stories came across my social media feed which seemed to inhibit dialogue rather than invite it. This morning I receive a message from a Spring Arbor graduate who is interning with IJM in Asia and had been in my race and ethnic class. Watching all of this from afar, she wrote:

I’ve been recently becoming more and more frustrated by humanity’s apparent inability to have conversations about things like this. People seem to prefer choosing sides and having a screaming match instead of trying to come to a reasonable conclusion. Judging from your Facebook posts (and your class discussions) this is something that frustrates you as well.

Here are my answers to her very good question.

1. We Don’t Know How to Think about Structural Inequality

As I’ve written, last month I finished The Long Shadow, a book by Johns Hopkins sociologists examining two decades of life in Baltimore. It reports on a panel study that followed children starting public school through age 28. I shared their findings in our social stratification class yesterday (I summarized their mobility data in the post last month.) I gave the students this chart.

Long Shadow

I wrote in that other post that this is a Chi-Square test.For those who don’t know Chi-Square, it’s a test of independence. The “expected count” shows what you’d have if there was no relationship between the variables. While we can never “prove” a relationship, we wind up determining that the relationship is statistically significant (meaning the odds of this being a chance pattern are very small).There are four degrees of freedom in a three by three table and the Chi-Square value for a 1% chance of error is 13.27. For yesterday’s class I tested the probability of finding this result. The Chi-Square value for the table above came in at 126. When I plugged that figure into a Chi-Square calculator, I learned that the odds of finding this pattern rests at 1 out of 100,000.

What this chart tells us, as does Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, is that there is much more to intergenerational inheritance than we’ve been willing to admit. Advantage begets advantage. Disadvantage limits mobility. Of course it is true that individuals can rise about their circumstances through discipline and hard work. It is true that children of advantage can lose ground. But as the chart shows, these are the anomaly not the general pattern. Without something shifting trajectory, the likely outcome is class replacement.

Our focus on mobility and the American Dream blinds us to this basic sociological reality. To admit that some people seem trapped by their circumstances somehow runs the risk of determinism. So we try to generalize from the exception rather than looking at the common patterns.

2. We fail to understand the implications of past public policy decisions

As tempting as it is for some critics to simply blame Baltimore Uprising on partisan politics or racial insensitivity, the actual picture is more complicated. Emily Badger wrote a fascinating account in Wednesday’s Washington Post detailing the public policy history of Baltimore. It’s a harsh history. This passage summarizes things very well.

And the really terrible irony — which brings us back to Baltimore today — is that each of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.

Suburbanization led to White Flight. White Flight led to a declining city tax base. Urban redevelopment displaced powerless populations so that we could gentrify the neighborhoods to revitalize the downtown. Rundown areas became havens for crime. Crime-ridden neighborhoods required a regular police presence. Those who could flee the inner city did, leaving behind those with few other options.

I’d like to believe that these were all unintended consequences of misguided public policy. But I fear that there were those who manipulated these policies as economic incentives. Those who targeted West Baltimore for subprime mortgages didn’t do that by accident.

I could write an entire post on the ways in which our short-sighted policy decisions have contributed to the realities we face today. But until we recognize that this isn’t about welfare dependency or drug trafficking but is about a national policy that favored economic interests and upper-middle class enclaves, we can’t have a real conversation about why there are two Baltimores.

3. We are unable to take the role of the other

It’s easy to blame this on the media — they make it so easy. Jon Stewart did a great video montage this week of Wolf Blitzer claiming that he “couldn’t believe these things happen in America”. First, Wolf needs to get out more and talk way less. But more importantly, it reflected a blindness to the ongoing situations on the ground. Many people rightly observe that media coverage of the Baltimore protests was minimal and sporadic until the CVS store was burned. Suddenly, we denounce the looters and decry the sad state of our culture.

Two things needs to be said. First, I heard a long-term law enforcement officer on NPR this week (I can’t find the link) comment that Monday’s riot was nothing compared to what happened to Baltimore in 1968. Today we have 24 hour news channels and roving reporters demanding to know why rioting is happening. Second, the media coverage follows a pattern of finding the most egregious example and using that as the key talking point.

This story by Lonnae O’Neal does an excellent job of trying to walk in the shoes of those who actually experience West Baltimore. Perhaps if we had more sociological imagination we could begin to know what that’s like.

In a strange way, comments by law enforcement officials following the indictment of the six officers for the death of Freddie Gray provide a starting point for empathy. NPR had a story yesterday about fears those in law enforcement that included the following:

“The specter of criminal charges being filed against police officers I believe is going to send reverberations across the nation,” says Sue Rahr, a former sheriff who now runs the police academy in Washington state.

Rahr is reform-minded, having served on President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing. But she’s also worried that public opinion is becoming too slanted against police.

“What gets played in the media is the most extreme cases — the cases that represent an anomaly,” she says. “Because those are played over and over again, people get the perception that that’s happening all the time and that’s the norm.”

It almost sounds like she’s concerned that police would be blindly assumed of wrongdoing. What would be next? Randomly stopping innocent police officers and demanding that they explain their presence in the neighborhood? That they could be harassed just because of their physical appearance?

Yet that kind of cross-over of viewpoint is necessary if we are to break out of our echo chambers. Otherwise, we keep talking to people who already agree with us about how bad THEY are.

4. We won’t abandon chicken-and-egg issues about culture and structure

It’s amazing how much is written about issues of culture versus issues of structural inequality. Yesterday, David Brooks wrote an essay about The Nature of Poverty. He says that we have spent great sums of money on programs and yet don’t seem to make a difference (to his credit, he doesn’t begrudge those attempts). He concludes his piece as follows:

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

As a social psychologist, this is frustrating. The relationship between belief and behavior is a reflexive phenomenon. Our beliefs influence our behaviors and our experiences modify our beliefs. As I told the stratification class yesterday, it may be that not caring in school is a remarkable rational response to lack of opportunity or the difficulty of overcoming a brush with the law.

The only viable policy response is for us to consider how to support students who care about school while simultaneously addressing issues that make it worth their while to care. It is to consider how our drug policies have impacted family dynamics while we find ways of strengthening family and extra-family bonds (and be willing to support even those that don’t involve marriage).

As long as we simply pick a side and say that nothing can happen until we resolve this issue (joblessness or criminality), nothing will happen.

5. We lack a theology that confronts inequality

I just finished an excellent little book on Wesleyan Political Theology. It is Greg Coates Master’s thesis from Duke and explores how Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts built on John Wesley’s theology to engage political and economic conditions in 19th century America. Deeply embedded in American populism and the pursuit of the Imago Dei, Roberts worked vociferously for social change. Not as an addendum to his theological commitments but as a direct expression of them. Coates contrasts Wesley’s views of the monarchy and the government in England with Roberts’ views of economic exploitation and structural inequality in America. He concludes that Roberts grasps an underdeveloped component of Wesleyan theology; that individual AND structures are being redeemed.

Yet a Wesleyan approach to politics is rooted in the primary truth that all people are created in the image of God and that all of creation is intended to reflect the community of the holy Triune God, with whom we will one day be united after having been sanctified through the power of the Spirit. This means that first and foremost our political theology must be people-centric, not issue-centric.

Because Roberts wasn’t interested in premillennialism, he didn’t see the world as something to be abandoned. He recognized that somehow we are co-participants in God’s Kingdom and responsible to and for all those who live in it.

Maybe if we could take this last point seriously, the other issues would begin to be addressed.

Who Sinned, the Child or the Parents? Inherited Inequality

This is the second post in my series on structural inequality.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9: 1-3)

As I’ve been working through my study of the structures of inequality, this passage from John kept ringing through my head. All of the talk of the 47%, of takers, of those who don’t have proper work ethic, seems to be designed to draw a direct cause-effect relationship between individual choices and the impacts of poverty.

It is no surprise that Robert Putnam’s book is titled Our Kids. It’s a very interesting rhetorical move. We look at children with less opportunities and we can ask a question similar to what the disciples asked: who sinned? Was it this child’s fault or her parents?

It is a provocative question the disciples asked because of what it implies about next steps.

If, we would assume, the blindness is the result of this man’s actions and choices, then we could be freed from responsibility to act. If, on the other hand, it is the byproduct of choices made in earlier generations, it’s hard to know how to undo those past actions without a Tardis. Again, we are freed from responsibility.

So it is with the children in Putnam’s book or in the Hopkins study of Baltimore (The Long Shadow). I’m still working through both books, but it is clear to me that we can either look at poor choices made by a young tough in New Orleans or we can see how family disruption and parental drug issues hampered a young woman in Oregon.

What do we do now?

In the Baltimore study, they were looking at the situation of students starting public school in Baltimore in 1982. One of the chapters looks specifically at the family background of those six-year-olds. I took this picture of the Table (even if it is a little crooked):

Baltimore FamiliesThe researchers first broke the data by socioeconomic status and then, within lower SES, by race. This data shows the kinds of statistics that people like to toss around when critiquing inequality: single-parenthood, early pregnancy, lack of educational achievement. There are stark differences present in these columns. Note, for example, that in over a third of the families the mother had never married. The breakdown by class and race shows a 42% gap between the higher SES families (which were only high within Baltimore standards), and the lower-SES African American families.

But these demographics mask deeper, family system issues. Sometimes those relate to lack of job opportunities in the city. Incarceration is a factor as well. So are issues of drug and alcohol addiction.

Consider the story of Bess, one of those kids who started first grade in the early 1980s. Here is her situation as an adult as reported by the interviewers:

Bess, who grew up in what she described as a chaotic family environment, had her first baby at age fourteen in the summer of eighth grade, then a second in tenth grade. She tried to finish high school, indeed worked hard at it, but was unable to trust her mother to watch her first baby and eventually gave up. Bess would call home from school, she told us, and her mother would not be there; she would come home to find her baby soiled and unfed. “If I had somebody to watch who I knew, you know, was a good person to watch and I knew she was gonna’ be alright, then, you know, I woulda’ stayed [in school].” Bess was surrounded by an abundance of family — a cousin who supported a drug habit by prostituting herself and her mother, who, according to Bess, was drunk “morning to night.” Bess is one of the Youth Panel’s permanent dropouts, a victim, she says, of a neglectful mother and extended family disruption (2014, 48).

“Who sinned”, they asked, “this girl or her mother?”

Frankly, Jesus’ response is hard to figure out. He seems to suggest that the man is born blind “for such a moment as this”.

I prefer to take Jesus to be saying, “Your question is irrelevant. What is important is how God’s work can be done.”

Both of the books I’m reading share this common sentiment. Somehow, the children are suffering from the situations in which they grow up. Or at least some of them are. Putnam has a regular series of what he calls scissor graphs, which show advantages accruing to upper class families (because they have time for summer enrichment and organized sports) while disadvantages deepen for lower class families (because life circumstances set them farther and farther behind).

We wrestle with an appropriate response to inequality in the same way the disciples did.

We want to celebrate “good families” and don’t want to legitimize family dysfunction. We can argue that having two parents in the household, in their first marriage, who spent time interacting with their children yields the best outcomes for those children. This is demonstrably true.

But we can’t actually say to Bess’ mother, “you should marry the father, clean up your life, read to your children, and take the family to church.” Or more correctly, the only reason to say so is to ease our conscience about our own families.

Maybe we’d be better able to address issues of inequality if we saw Bess’ situation as a way to see God’s work displayed.

We’d worry less about affixing blame and show compassion on the young girl in a remarkably difficult circumstance.

Another March Madness: Inequality in America

15mens_bracket copy

Over the next three weeks, I’m focusing this blog on issues of inequality. In part, this is prompted by Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which explores the nature of inequality of opportunity across generations. I’m only into the second chapter, but both the changes to Port Clinton, Ohio (Putnam’s hometown and the focus on chapter one) and the changes in Bend, Oregon (chapter two), easily illustrate the connections between structural changes in economics, education, and housing and the cultural dynamics shaping the life choices of families impacted. As I’ve read essays about Putnam’s argument, they seem to serve as a Rorschach test — illumining the favorite theories of the author. It will doubtless be argued that it does the same for me.

I’ve also been reading The Long Shadow, a sociological study of children growing up in Baltimore schools. They have also been impacted by changes in terms of economy, housing, and culture. The students in the study are those left behind after white flight caused many with resources to flee Baltimore for the surrounding counties. The Long Shadow is interesting because it compares the dynamics of lower class whites, lower class blacks, and moderately upper class whites. While the picture is complicated by factors of culture and racism, there are very different patterns when it comes to opportunity.

In addition to these sources, it seems that every day brings news of the realities of inequality. The Ferguson report from the Department of Justice illustrates the dynamics of differential enforcement. I’ve got recent data on school achievement and college persistence that illustrates the way education at all levels plays a gatekeeping function. We have recently begun to approach a national consensus that our drug policy has been devastating to urban communities and prison overpopulation.

And yet we seem unwilling or unable to recognize inequality in our midst. Perhaps, as Matt Taibbi suggested, it’s as simple as the residential segregation that undergirds our interactions. Because we don’t know people outside our circles, we can cherry pick egregious cases and treat them as if they are indicative of entire groups of people.

Or maybe we can’t see it because the possibility of Horatio Alger success is so ingrained in the American psyche. We don’t know how to talk about differential opportunity because that might somehow suggest that people were trapped by their circumstances.

Better to believe that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules could get ahead — the bootstrap mentality. As MLK said in one of his final sermons at the National Cathedral, it’s one thing to say a man should pull himself up by his bootstraps but it’s a cruel joke to say that to a man with no shoes.

But if there’s one time of the year when we should understand the structural nature of inequality, it’s March. Today, the bracketology came to a head and we know who made it to the dance. Beginning Tuesday, teams begin competing in the NCAA men’s national championship. The whole thing centers on the top seeds of Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova, and Duke.

We watch the tournament and root for “Cinderella teams”, small feisty groups of guys who don’t read the brackets and come from small markets. This is their “one shining moment”. But in the vast majority of the cases, the seeding matters. The strong teams seem to prevail. We like the hustle of the Coastal Carolina team, but eventually Wisconsin will wear them down. Remember too that these 68 teams are but a tiny fraction of NCAA Division One schools.

Furthermore, if we look at the top couple of seeds in each bracket we can find teams that are somewhere in that mix every single year. It’s not just that they have a talented team — they have a reputation, a coaching staff, scholarship dollars/boosters, and facilities that help them attract the best players.

It doesn’t mean that the number one seeds will be in the final four. They can have an off night or have a key player injured or in foul trouble. But the odds are that the lower seeds will prevail.

This is a lesson that is far deeper than what we see Thursday to Sunday over the next three weeks. It happens in the same fashion every day across this country. So I’ll be blogging during the tournament to explore how those dynamics play out. I hope you’ll follow along.