How Schools Can Solve Robert Putnam’s Poverty Paradox

By 06/12/2015

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At the heart of Robert Putnam’s important new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is a paradox. As Putnam so effectively and compassionately illustrates, the fundamental reality of life for many children growing up in poverty in America today is the extremely low level of “social capital” of their families, communities, and schools. One or both of their parents are absent; church attendance is down; opportunities to participate in sports teams or scout troops or youth groups are few and far between. Put simply, these kids—“our kids”—feel all alone, living “troubled, isolated, hopeless lives.”

The solution, then—the way to help poor children climb the ladder to the middle class and achieve the American Dream—must involve rebuilding this social capital, right? Yet that’s not what Putnam proposes; instead, he calls for more investments in government services and transfer payments. He wants to replace social capital with financial capital.

Why? It’s probably because, like the rest of us, he doesn’t know how to rebuild social capital. Once it’s lost, it may be gone forever.

And that’s the paradox: Social capital is essential to keeping families and communities spiritually and materially prosperous. But once a family or a community experiences social-capital insolvency, declaring bankruptcy and starting fresh is extraordinarily hard to do. This is an age-old insight among conservatives, and it’s why so many on the Right (going back at least to Burke) have worried about protecting civil society. If the Left is also coming around to this view, so much the better. But is it too late?


A few weeks ago, I had the honor of hosting Putnam at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and interviewing him about his book. (You can watch the video here or read the transcript here.) I put that question to him. I asked him what we could do to stitch together the frayed social fabric of the most disadvantaged and dysfunctional families and communities. Is it simply, as President Obama says repeatedly, about “investing in public goods” like pre-school? This was Putnam’s response:

I would love to have some ideas about how to address the collapse of social capital and especially the collapse of family social capital. I mean, I really would. When we convened my group after the book—we are in the midst of convening a set of working groups on various baskets of possible solutions—we convened one on family structure, and we had people from different sorts of backgrounds, and actually liberals and conservatives in the group all agree this is a problem, but we don’t quite know how to fix it. George W. Bush tried the [Healthy Marriage Initiative], and to his great credit, they did evaluations of them, and evaluations are that it’s hard for government to do anything about that part of the problem. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it. I think that not all problems have government solutions. I think some of them have social or cultural solutions.

This is an honest and appropriate answer. It syncs with the conclusion Charles Murray comes to at the end of his similar 2012 book, Coming Apart. In a nutshell: He admitted to not knowing what to do about these problems either. (You can watch a video of Murray discussing his book with Fordham’s Chester Finn.)

Maybe there’s nothing we can do about broken families and communities. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. Schools, in particular, can be instruments for building social capital. Consider three strategies:

1. Invite poor children into schools with social capital to spare. If loneliness, isolation, and extremely fragile families are big parts of the poverty problem, then connecting poor children with thriving families and communities can be part of the solution. Great schools can be such communities.

The Left likes this idea as it pertains to school desegregation. In fact, the Century Foundation’s Rick Kahlenberg reads Putnam’s book as an explicit endorsement of experimenting with various ways of integrating schools along socioeconomic lines.

The Right likes this idea as it pertains to school choice, and especially private school choice. Why not let poor children use vouchers to join strong private school communities with oodles of social capital? The results—in terms of academic and other outcomes—speak for themselves.

A “purple solution,” as Putnam might say, would embrace both integration and school choice.

2. Build on the social capital that does exist in poor communities. As devastating as Putnam’s depiction of today’s poverty may be, we shouldn’t think that there’s absolutely no social capital in low-income communities. Far from it. Churches and other faith communities continue to play critical roles; so do a variety of neighborhood organizations. Likewise, sports and other extracurricular programs provide an important home for poor kids. It’s obscene, as Putnam said at our event, that some schools are now charging “activities fees” to participate in these programs.

Education reformers should look for ways to nurture existing social capital and help it grow. Community-based charter schools are one way; so (again) is private school choice. That’s a particularly powerful way to engage faith communities in expanding their mission into education, as we’ve seen with voucher and tax-credit programs in Florida and elsewhere. And as the important book Lost Classroom, Lost Community argues, urban Catholic schools have been in the social-capital business for a century, to great effect. We must do everything we can to stem their demise.

Let’s be honest, though: Growing social capital is a different mission from growing academic achievement. They are probably related, but sometimes clash. If community-based charters or faith-based voucher schools are doing important work on the social-capital front, but are not getting the test scores we seek, it creates a real dilemma for us. We’ve got to tread carefully.

3. Build social capital by creating new schools. This is the toughest item—logistically, politically, and otherwise. It’s like growing a flower in the desert. Yet it’s the approach taken by most “no-excuses” charter schools: to import loads of financial, human, and social capital into an impoverished neighborhood and build something new and enduring. Such schools connect with the deepest desires of the parents in those communities: for their children to succeed, to prepare for college or career, to live the American Dream. But the people who run these schools are often not from the community, and that creates inevitable conflicts. It’s also something of an open question whether these brand-new schools can create true social capital beyond their four walls; the authors of Lost Classroom, Lost Community aren’t so sure.

And what about the other solutions that Putnam, President Obama, and many others on the Left promote? These include investing in pre-school and creating “wrap-around” services at poor schools, à la the Harlem Children’s Zone—which, in addition to providing schooling, also provides health care, meals, and after-school activities for students and their families. I’m certainly game for trying them. But it seems to me that if they are to have much of an impact, they must build social capital rather than just provide services to individual kids. I’m skeptical that a typical Head Start center, after-school program, or school-based health clinic can do that, but I’d be glad to be proven wrong.


There are some people, mostly on the Left, who still believe that the poverty problem can be solved by giving poor people more money or services. This position has the benefit of simplicity. But it’s hard to read Putnam and think that such an approach will do much to interrupt intergenerational poverty. If we want to spur upward mobility, we need something much more.

Amanda Ripley famously reported in The Smartest Kids in the World that South Koreans consider their teachers to be “nation builders.” Likewise, our educators—and our education reformers—need to be considered “social-capital builders.” Let’s figure out how.

– Mike Petrilli

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in National Review Online.

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