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Home Uncategorized The American Nightmare

The American Nightmare

James Wickham
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D Putnam, Simon & Schuster, £18.99, 400 pp, ISBN: 978-1476769899 Some social changes come with trumpets blaring, promoted by self-serving entrepreneurs, hyped by snake-oil gurus and official pundits: think for example of the claims that we now live in the “knowledge society” of a connected digital world. Others come more slowly, advancing almost imperceptibly until we suddenly realise that the world has changed, changed utterly. So it is with the transformation of the United States of America into a society more divided by social class than any other Western democracy. This duality is the theme of new book by Robert Putnam, one of America’s leading social scientists. Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) popularised the concept of “social capital” – the extent to which we are involved in social networks. Putnam showed that social capital is crucial for our well-being, but that such connections had been declining for several decades. He has a gift for the vignette that encapsulates a whole social change: in the recent past Americans had gone bowling in groups, by 2000 they were bowling alone. That image summed up the decline of community which the book documented and sought to explain. The book was intellectually tough, based on a mass of original and very imaginative research, but it was also readable by non-social scientists. Not surprisingly Bowling Alone was one of the most influential works of social science in the new century. With Our Kids, Putnam has done it again. There are in fact three reasons to read this book. Any one of them would be sufficient, but each is integral to the overall argument. First, Our Kids documents the breathtaking expansion of inequality in the USA and the appalling consequences this now has for American children. Social inequality is not just about the poor; it’s about the gap between the poor and the better off. On indicator after indicator, so Putnam shows, this gap has been getting bigger. Since the 1970s earnings have been falling among the least educated, while at the top incomes have been growing (especially in the current crisis); the net wealth of the poor has actually fallen, while the wealthy are wealthier, ensuring in turn that their children start their careers without debt from college fees; among poor white women, life expectancy has actually fallen. And so it goes on. Affluent Americans and poor Americans now live in different worlds. Neighbourhoods…

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