Our Kids : The American Dream in Crisis

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015) by Robert Putnam is a book that looks at how American income mobility has changed. It provides long narratives of examples of how Americans are more likely to be poor and stay poor or be rich and stay rich than they were before. Putnam contrasts how things develop today compared to how it was for him growing up in the 1950s.

Putnam thinks that racial differences are now overshadowed by wealth differences. There is data, however, that suggests that racial differences are still very important. The Economist magazine has a recent article that suggests that this is not the case. If you’re in the 1st quintile at birth and African American the likelihood that you are in this first quintile at age 40 is 51%, for a white American it’s only 23%. It’s a substantial difference.

Putnam’s book concentrates on narrative examples and this is the big weakness of the book. Having the examples a third as long as they are now and then including more graphs and data would have made the book much better. Narratives can just be anecdotes and the story is much better elucidated by having both narratives and data presented. Putnam also somewhat undermines his case as a number of the people who are doing well came from households that were poor, it’s not clear that people doing better or worse despite expectations won’t continue.

The book is interesting for a while, but the concentration on narrative doesn’t really work. The US has seen an increase in inequality as have most other developed nations. This book adds something to the discussion but it’s overly ponderous and lacked some sharp editing.


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