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...