Inequality has been a major theme of American politics for some years, but a book published this week aims to make it the defining issue of the 2016 election campaign by focusing on the children who are the country’s future. In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam, shows that the widening opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots already blights the lives of millions of children, and he warns that few of those born into social and financial deprivation have any chance of improving their lot if current trends are not corrected.

If the American Dream is currently stalled for many, it could well be extinguished for much of the population in the decades to come, he contends. How can that be prevented?

Fifteen years ago Putnam rose to fame with his book, Bowling Alone, about the decline of civic life in America as fewer people joined clubs, served on parent-teacher associations or went to church. In his new book he describes, using statistics and individual portraits of children, something much more devastating: the decline of family life and the nurturing of children among the poor and working class — at the same time as the children of the upper class are more carefully nurtured and educated than ever.

Here is a summary of one of the contrasts drawn in the book from interviews with real children:

Andrew, from the upscale west side of Bend, Oregon, thrives in the emotional and material riches provided by his loving parents and is unembarrassed by their obvious affection for him, while in a tattered trailer in the poor part of town just across the river Kayla struggles with depression induced by her chaotically fractured family and lack of familial support. The lives and prospects of these two kids illustrate the effect on children of the rapidly growing class disparity in family structure. Increasingly, kids from college-educated homes live in stable, two-parent families, while a growing majority of kids from high-school educated homes live in fragile, one-parent families. These different launching pads powerfully determine their life trajectories.

Kayla lives in a poor neighbourhood which is unlikely to have a good school. The procession of adults in her life have not been in a position to give her affection, read her bedtime stories when she was little, sit the family down to dinner each evening or take her to church – all things which Putnam’s research shows would improve her opportunities.

This sketch highlights one the key findings of Putnam’s research – and the research of a number of others: the collapse of the working class family. The stable nuclear family is as strong as ever for upscale Americans, while a sobering 70 percent of poorer children live in single-parent families – up from just 20 percent in the 1960s. Putnam has a dramatic “scissors” graph showing the widening gap.

parent graph

For decades this growing social fault line has been papered over by progressives who do not wish to acknowledge the importance of marriage to individuals and society (although they choose it for themselves!) but prefer to let the welfare state take over the role that belongs naturally to parents who are committed through marriage to each other and their children. Now the failure of that approach has become so blatant that it can no longer be ignored. Welfare can help the poor but it cannot make up for the lack of two emotionally stable and committed parents.

For some family scholars, in fact, the marriage divide is the most fundamental source of inequality in society. The most educated Americans (and all of this applies to other countries) tend to get well-paid employment, marry within their class and grow richer. On a more modest scale educationally and professionally, the working class once did the same, bettering their own and their children’s prospects – in other words, living the American Dream.

In a recent report sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Lerman estimated that the growth in median incomes of families with children would be 44 percent higher today if the US enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood. “Further,” they said, “at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37 percent of the decline in men’s employment rates during that time can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.”

Putnam, while acknowledging the importance of the two-parent family to the wellbeing and life chances of children, identifies economic changes as the primary source of inequality – declining real wages and greater job instability for the less educated. His most important advice to the political community is to restore working-class incomes. This in turn, his research suggests, will help family stability and educational attainment.

Among other measures that he recommends to close the opportunity gap are an expansion of proven vocational training programmes and public preschool education, mentoring and coaching programmes for both parents and children, and reducing incarceration rates for non-violent (drug, mainly) crimes that remove so many fathers from their children’s lives.

Disappointingly, but in line with what other prominent scholars have recommended recently, Putnam proposes to address the parenthood deficit by shifting the stigma (what is left of it) from unwed parenthood to “unplanned parenting”. Like Isabel Sawhill, Andrew Cherlin and others, it seems, he recognises that marriage is what has given stability and opportunity to new generations, but thinks the struggle to restore a marriage culture is too hard and that a weaker form of commitment can provide an adequate basis for the family.

That has yet to be proven; cohabitation typically is a short-term relationship compared to marriage. In any case I wonder whether “planned parenting” is the kind of thing New York Times columnist David Brooks means when, commenting on Putnam’s book , he pinpoints agreement about moral “norms” as essential to any effort to help poor and broken families. Neither sympathy nor money, says Brooks courageously, is enough:

The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

He goes on to assert that, once they know the standards, people both down and up the social scale need to be held responsible for their behaviour.

Agreed. But if we are going to set standards, why not make them the best, the tried and true, instead of second best as the “let’s forget about marriage and just get people to have only children they are going to look after properly” option suggests. Why not, as Wilcox and a few others tirelessly argue, restore marriage as the normative basis of family life and place it where it belongs in the “success sequence” – schooling, work, marriage, parenthood? It has, after all, been done before.

Within that framework all kinds of civic support and social assistance can find their proper and constructive place. Without it, nothing will change. As Wilcox says in concluding a review of Our Kids:

No social services designed in Washington will substitute for homes with two devoted parents and communities replete with PTO moms and soccer dads. At the very least, we need a public conversation about the importance of marriage and parenting, one that is conducted in such a way that it will have as much purchase in Bethlehem, Pa., as in Bethesda, Md. Otherwise we can expect to continue living in a world in which “our kids” do just fine and “their kids” do not.

Can we expect to hear the opening gambit in this marriage conversation from any of the front-runners for next year’s presidential election? If not, don’t believe any of their promises about what they are going to do for “our kids”.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet