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Author Finds American Dream Fading for Millions

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“Bowling Alone” and “American Grace” famously brought author Robert Putnam and wide readerships together.

Social scientists of some sorts often alienate audiences and readerships when they choose to speak or write in dense and turgid phrases.

But perceptive and phrase-making Putnam can hold his own with eloquent peers when gathering resources, summoning data or framing an argument.

Adept at fusing his scholarly and social passions, he sometimes gets called an evangelist or prophet for his causes.

His current issue, set forth in his well-reviewed new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” is drawing attention, as it should.

It is possible to shelve “Our Kids” next to writings in which seniors complain about juniors. It has been suggested that when Adam and Eve turned 50, they began complaining about “the younger generation.”

Putnam, not first of all a complainer, this time reaches for extremes. “We” and “Our Kids” are not merely confused or apathetic or drifting. We are clearly in crisis.

Or the book could get dismissed as one more complaint about social class and the economic debates connected with both, or all, sides of class division in America.

Also, it could be ignored by those who tire of nostalgic reckonings about “the good old days;” some celebrations of them do appear here.

Putnam lovingly invokes the past as he begins with references to his own childhood years and to locales like the town in which he grew up.

Winsomely and with clarity, he writes about a time when the boundaries between classes were not as defined and drastic as now.

But as he looks at the contemporary scene, he finds plenty of reason to describe the class gulf as “in crisis” and the “American Dream” not merely fading for millions but becoming almost irretrievably out of range for their young.

What’s missing, especially for the millions of “Their Kids” in America today? They lack agencies where “social capital” – an old Putnam phrase – is tended to.

Voluntary organizations, support groups, clubs, neighborhood places, which encourage bonding and interaction, are disappearing from the scene for the millions who cannot advance.

Nicholas Lemann covers the subject well. He sees Putnam “drawn to such particular aspects of community life as the cultural centrality of the football team, the innocence about sex and drugs, and the prevalence of moms who…” (you can easily fill in the rest of the sentence, in a variety of ways).

Putnam does find that the kids of the affluent parents “have more education … go to church,” etc. “Children in the lower third are less likely to play sports or to go to church.”

Lemann chides Putnam for underdevoting himself to hard and more radical political and economic analysis and prescribed addresses to the crisis, but his is a start.

Religion and church play a larger role in Cathy Lynn Grossman’s comments in “Religion News Service.”

She cites Putnam’s devotion to Martin Luther King Jr. “and even Pope Francis” as creative visionaries and nudgers.

Readers of the responses to Putnam are not surprised to see his celebration of “social capital” agencies, churches and schools.

One wonders whether forever there has to be a gulf between the hands-on promoters of incremental “social capital” gains and large-scale attempts at solving the problems of “half our kids,” which means “all of us.”

Whoever has seen the activities of religious communities among the rural and urban lower classes will be cheered to see the benefits to the smaller circles of social capital “investors” and large-scale political efforts.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission. You can follow Sightings on Twitter @DivSightings.