In First Things, Amy L. Wax reviews Robert Putnam’s most recent book, which examines the widening opportunity gap between the poor and the rest of America. She’s not buying Putnam’s explanation that it’s all about the economy. Excerpt:

In stressing the monetary and material roots of working-class collapse, Putnam relies chiefly on the observation that real earnings for male high school graduates and dropouts have stagnated or declined since the 1970s, with secure factory jobs dwindling. Yet he ignores significant fluctuations during the past fifty years, and fails to explain why social cohesion, and especially family structure, has deteriorated relentlessly despite significant economic ups and downs. Putnam himself states that the thirty-year drop in real earnings for male high school graduates has been only 11 percent without explaining how this alone can account for the accelerating pathologies that he recounts.

And although Putnam admits that life for the working class, and even the poor, used to be dramatically different, he has remarkably little to say about why parents in straitened circumstances were once far more effective in establishing orderly homes, socializing their children, and equipping them to exploit chances for self-improvement or, at least, to achieve a decent, satisfying life. And he devotes no attention to the significant number of less skilled Americans—including many recent immigrants—who effectively resist the social problems that bedevil others at the bottom of the economic ladder.

In fact, Putnam’s own anecdotes belie his tilt toward the economic roots of working-class distress, highlighting the dynamic, two-way relationship between material hardship and life choices. Joe, one of his working-class protagonists, is steadily employed at a decent job managing a pizza franchise. Yet he chronically overspends his earnings and forms tempestuous, unstable liaisons that produce children he can scarcely afford. Indeed, virtually all of ­Putnam’s working-class subjects seem to specialize in a familiar litany of self-­defeating behaviors. Short-lived broken relationships, random spawning and abandonment of children, squandered educational opportunities, repetitive law­breaking, and drug abuse are staples of their existence. Male incarceration is commonplace. Parenting is often harsh while also indifferent, erratic, and neglectful.

In short, the picture Putnam paints is too often that of people who repeatedly pass up the chance to steady or improve their own lives. The sociologist Isabel Sawhill, whom Putnam cites, has observed that a few simple choices—the so-called “success sequence”—can minimize poverty even for people with modest education and skills. The prescription is to graduate from high school, work steadily at any job available, get married before having children, and avoid crime. These basic prudential steps are within the reach of virtually everyone, regardless of means and background, and most people used to accept them as indispensable way stations to responsible adulthood. Yet these steps are no longer followed by most people without a college degree. Laying this at the feet of economic causes requires adopting a peculiar brand of causal materialism that now dominates the social sciences.

Note that Wax is not saying that the economy has nothing to do with it. She’s saying that the explanation is not only materialistic, that free will, family structure, and values have a lot to do with it too. She concludes by saying that Putnam has nothing to offer to help those who are going to be in the working class, period. Read the whole thing.

(Sorry I’m not more engaged in commentary today. I’m at Union University in Tennessee, and between classes and talks.)

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