Robert Putnam Fights America’s ‘Opportunity Gap’ with Religious Fervor

Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS
Barack Obama awards Robert Putnam the 2012 National Humanities Medal. Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

Harvard professor Robert Putnam jokingly calls himself “a nice Jewish formerly Methodist boy.”

But the public policy expert’s new book, Our Kids, reads more like a tent meeting revival, complete with an “altar call” at the end. His private meetings and public appearances at the White House and Capitol Hill, and meetings with civic and faith leaders across the country, carry the same fervor.

While evangelists convict people of their sinful ways and then convert them to the path of salvation for the hereafter, Putnam’s focus is more on this side of heaven.

His goal: to awaken and inspire Americans to “save” young people from a future trapped in a spiral of fractured families, poor schooling, and a grim economic future that Putnam says will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. Trillions.

He is not only aiming for political, social, and religious elites. He’s also aiming at the everyday reader from Boston to Dubuque with a message that failure to act will “undermine democracy and political stability for all.” That’s why the book is subtitled, “The American Dream in Crisis.”

“I’m writing for ordinary people, not the political class. I’m holding up a mirror of American society to the ‘haves’ to say ‘look what we’ve become,’” he said.

Putnam operates in the genre of the great social reformers, channeling Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives and Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which provided the intellectual and maybe the moral grounding for the Great Society legislation of the 1960s.

In Our Kids, Putnam summons Scripture, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Gettysburg Address, and even Pope Francis, who said it is an “injustice” to isolate the young as though their needs and their pain “were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

This call to care for the marginalized is on the announced agenda for the pontiff’s meeting with President Obama in September during his U.S. tour. Putnam has made his “altar call” at the White House, too. The author of the award-winning book Bowling Alone, and co-author of the best-seller American Grace, Putnam received the 2012 National Humanities Medal from the president.

For Our Kids, Putnam directed a research team that interviewed scores of young adults and plowed through mountains of data on education, marriage, employment, incarceration and more.

The book contrasts two groups: The “poor” youth of America of every race or ethnicity who never make it beyond high school (if that), and their “rich” counterparts, college-educated young adults groomed by parents, pastors, coaches, and workplace mentors for success in today’s society.

The rich kids — measured not by income but by their wealth of opportunities — have ties to people who serve as “air bags” to mitigate injury when they get in trouble.

Their stories are interspersed with poor kids’ wrenching tales of lives in isolation. The poor, Putnam writes, sip from a “cocktail of sorrow,” a mix of “precarious work, fragile families, and dangerous neighborhoods.”

Not even churches penetrate the isolation now that “poor families in general (are) less involved in religious communities than affluent families,” Putnam found.

Readers meet Elijah, in his 20s and packing groceries for a job. Elijah was inured to violence; at the age of 4 he witnessed a little girl killed in a drive-by shooting.

He says: “Every time my grandfather would take me to see a scary movie, it wouldn’t scare me at all, because I seen worse. ‘Go outside. I show you what’s scary.’”

And there’s David, who can’t visit his imprisoned dad because he’s on probation himself, drifting with no support and betrayed by a drug-addled girlfriend, the mother of his child.

David says: “I always end up on the losing end … I just want to feel whole again.”

There’s also the maxim offered by a young woman Putnam frequently cites in his talks — unwed, uneducated, unemployed young mother Mary Sue — who succinctly reveals the emotional devastation of poverty.

“Love gets you hurt,” she says. “Trust gets you killed.”

Putnam cites the findings of Clive Belfield, an associate professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York: The aggregate lifetime burden of failure to face the woes of poor youth is $1.59 trillion for taxpayers and $4.75 trillion for the larger society in lost earnings, lower economic growth and lower tax revenue beyond direct costs in welfare.

“I told Putnam he was an Old Testament prophet with charts,” said John Carr, executive director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.

“He reaches people politicians don’t.”

Carr, a former lobbyist on Capitol Hill for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, will bring Putnam to Washington to keynote a two-day conference in May designed to activate the forces of politics, religious groups , and other leaders.

Carr and Putnam’s two goals are straight out of the Pope Francis playbook: “To make overcoming poverty a moral imperative and a national priority for the churches and for the nation and to bring down the wall between the people who focus on family factors and the people who focus on economic factors as the causes and remedies of poverty,” said Carr.

Putnam said he is all for churches “taking their moral views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality into the public domain.”

But, with a few “honorable exceptions,” he said in an interview, “there is a strange silence of the American churches on issues of poverty” in the last half-century.

“Pope Francis’ articulation of the moral necessity of addressing poverty is the most important thing that has happened on this issue in the last 50 years. If the American churches become seized with the moral issue of child poverty, the problem will get fixed — and not only in church youth groups,” said Putnam.

“If they don’t become seized with it, I am much less optimistic.”

No one is off Putnam’s hook. Social change happens when, inspired by real human stories, the drive for change wells up into a national conversation.

“The last place to be captured by Big Deal — capital B, capital D — change is always Washington,” said Putnam.

So he wants the conversation bubbling by the time the 2016 presidential campaigns are in full swing. And he wants every reader to head down the sawdust trail to civic salvation.

His Saguaro Seminar brings together top scholars for two days of intense work to develop policy proposals on five topics: early childhood education; family structure and parenting; K-12 education; community institutions; and “on ramps” such as community colleges and work apprenticeships.

Each team will issue a 10-page chapter in a handbook for action for people who want to step up to help close the opportunity gap — “a mayor, an archbishop, a pastor, a congressman, people in public and private leadership,” Putnam said.

Ordinary Americans can start with a seemingly small issue with a disturbingly wide impact on poor kids. They are increasingly excluded from school sports and band and other extracurricular programs by a burgeoning trend toward “pay to play” fees instituted by cash-strapped schools, said Putnam.

He exhorts readers to “close this book and go directly to your school superintendent … and ask if your schools have a pay-to-play system.”

“Explain that everyone in the school will be better off if anyone in the school can be on the team or in the band,” said Putnam, who played trombone in the school band in Port Clinton, Ohio.

“Insist that pay-to-play be ended. And while you are there, ask if there are things you could do to help the local schools serve poor kids more effectively, both in the classroom and outside.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for Religion News Service, specializing in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. Via RNS.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Robert Putnam Fights America’s ‘Opportunity Gap’ with Religious Fervor"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe