Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Book Reviews

Separate and Unequal

Andrew Lynn

A boy rides his bike in downtown Utica, New York; Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Robert Putnam’s enduring legacy in American social science will almost certainly be his concern for community. His important earlier work on social capital and civic engagement redirected research agendas across several disciplines, even while attracting the attention of politicians, city planners, and international development organizations. The work that followed his influential Bowling Alone (2000) provided significant addenda to that book’s animating concern with civic practices and social solidarity. In 2007, in an important public lecture, the Harvard University political scientist explored the complex—and in some cases inverse—relationship between ethnic diversity and intergroup levels of trust. In 2010, he and coauthor David Campbell released American Grace, a landmark work that expanded knowledge of how religious associations contribute to civil society and democratic citizenship. Putnam has unquestionably become America’s leading public intellectual on what Bowling Alone’s subtitle names the “collapse and revival of American community.”

How Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis fits into the Putnam corpus is revealed in the first word of the book’s title. This is about the collective well-being of our next generation. Putnam’s concern for the collective is grounded in the personal: To write this book, he set out to track down all 150 people who had graduated with him from his Port Clinton, Ohio, high school in 1959. Investigating this group’s career trajectories and life opportunities provides the starting point for Putnam’s empirical project, which is supplemented by ethnographic observations of families from all over the United States. Although a political scientist by training, Putnam borrows many pages from cultural sociology to provide a close look at the experiences and personal narratives of families trying to live out the American dream in postindustrial America. These in-depth personal accounts of growing up and raising children across the social strata are recounted to illuminate the larger social and economic factors affecting our shared well-being.

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