You remember the old joke:
Q: What’s the best way to have a million dollars by the time you’re thirty?
A: Inherit ten million dollars when you’re twenty.
A new book by sociologist Robert Putnam underlines the traditional wisdom: The best way to succeed in life is to pick the right parents. According to reviews in The Economist and New York Times, Putnam amasses solid evidence to demonstrate that the class gap between rich and poor parents is huge and increasing.
The relationship between parenting and poverty has been a culture-war flashpoint for fifty years. As historian Andrew Hartman relates in his new book, back in the 1960s sociologist and sometime-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised hackles with his study of the causes of African-American poverty.
The problem with too many “Negro Families,” Moynihan argued, was that a destructive anti-family culture had set in. Kids were no longer being raised in stable two-parent households. Fathers were absent or abusive. Mothers were overworked and under stress. The result, Moynihan concluded, was that poor families—especially African American poor families—could not raise successful children.
Critics charged that Moynihan attacked poor people, not poverty. He was accused of a new crime: “blaming the victim.”
The numbers in Putnam’s new book offer some sobering suggestions that Moynihan’s warnings were correct, but not just for African American families. The real divide, Putnam says, is not between black and white parents, but between well-to-do college-educated parents and not-well-to-do parents with less education.
Some of these statistics are truly mind-blowing. Consider, for example, that a poor eighth-grade student who does very well in school still has a worse chance of completing college than a rich eighth-grade student who does very badly in school. The numbers of children living with two well-educated parents has stayed relatively stable. The number of children in single-parent households has shot up among parents with no more than a high-school education.
Traditionalists and conservatives, no doubt, will point to Putnam’s work as more evidence in favor of traditional families. The best way to fight poverty, they might say, will be to encourage stable two-parent households.
Progressives and liberals, meanwhile, will point to these numbers as proof of America’s un-level playing field. Children of parents with fewer educational advantages need extra assistance from government in order to stand any sort of chance.
The long-standing dream of American education has been that education can lead to success. Since the days of Horace Mann, education has been offered as the key to the American dream. Putnam’s study offers more evidence that education is part of the structure of inequality, not the sledgehammer to demolish that structure.