Tag Archives: putnam

Robert Putnam on economic mobility and Great Recession

Flickr photo by bupowski

Robert Putnam was on the NewsHour yesterday in a story by Paul Solman on how inequality and decreasing economic mobility are affecting Americans even as the economy modestly recovers out of the Great Recession.

Excerpt:

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the American dream — your kids will do better than you — neither you nor your kids think that that`s the case?

COOKIE SHEERS: No, we all feel stuck in a rut. You feel like you can`t move, you can’t grow, like you’re just at that edge of water where you can come up for air every few minutes, but never long enough to feel that you have accomplished something. You always have to go back down.

BOBBY HICKS: Like she says, I feel like, once I feel like I have reached that part where my nostrils can come out the top, life comes back and just steps right on my face and says: You know what? It’s not time for you to come up for air yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: The numbers support the stories. Economic inequality in America, widening steadily since 1980, grew during the financial crisis, with the top 5 percent of Americans owning 65 percent of national wealth by mid-2009, up from 62 percent two years before. The losers were the bottom 80 percent, whose share of wealth fell during the crisis. Nearly half had negative net worth by mid-2009….But, at least historically, there was always the very real hope of moving up, at least across generations.

ROBERT PUTNAM, Harvard University: That isn’t true anymore….So, one of our competitive advantages as a — as a society, which used to be that we were very mobile, and we were constantly getting new infusions of talent and so on at the top, and — and that people down near the bottom had a hope that, if they didn’t do well, their kids could do well in the past in America.

That a poor kid could grow up in a tenement, go off to city college, do well, and himself end up in the next generation pretty well-off, that’s what’s becoming less likely in America. And I think that undermines a crucial part of the American myth or the American dream or the American social contract.

PAUL SOLMAN: Adds economist Sam Bowles:

SAMUEL BOWLES, Santa Fe Institute: America is distinct in the extent to which inequality is inherited from generation to generation. The kids of rich parents have a strong tendency to be rich, and the kids of poor parents are very, very likely to be poor. That’s one of the things which I think Americans find most shocking. That’s a huge discrepancy from what we think of as the land of opportunity.

Even a college-education, the key ingredient in economic mobility, doesn’t seem to immunize Americans from these economic problems:

DENISE BARRANT: In our family, everybody is college-educated. Most of us have masters’. Myself, I’m unemployed. My brother is unemployed. People used to think it was a guarantee. It is not. To invest $200,000- plus in an education, with no guarantee that you have a job, is scary.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for Bobby Hicks’ job, it’s inequality, he says, that makes it possible.

BOBBY HICKS: In the security industry, you know, there is a demand for jobs, because the rich want to protect their assets.

PAUL SOLMAN: But those jobs are low-pay and low-prestige, despite the high stakes.

BOBBY HICKS: A pressure release valve for the domestic water in the building broke. And there was water flooding, and this was on the sixth floor. If their servers got wet, it would have wiped out the entire East Coast for this one particular company — and Bob, $9 an hour, to the rescue. Make the call, count on you, all right? But, if I screwed up, you’re gone.

Listen to NewsHour segment by Paul Solman “Many Americans Feel ‘Stuck in a Rut’ as Economy Improves but Inequality Grows” (3/24/11).

Note: the story is factually incorrect in claiming that Robert Putnam helped run Harvard’s Inequality Program.  He has never done that and Bruce Western runs Harvard’s Inequality Project currently, but Harvard’s Kennedy School Saguaro Seminar which Putnam leads has been undertaking a 4-5 year investigation of a growing youth social class gap.

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Japan’s catastrophy, social capital and order

Fukushima Daiichi Plant – Flickr photo by digitalglobe-imagery

My heart and thoughts are with the Japanese people.  Dealing with either of the menaces facing the country — the horrific aftermath of the tsunami or the gradual meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant — would be more than enough, to say nothing of dealing with both simultaneously, and with a disaster that may leave hundreds or thousands of square miles of a crowded Japan uninhabitable for decades.

There have been some interesting articles on how Japanese society, Japanese cultural group values social capital, and reciprocity, are or will aid Japan’s effort to rebuild.  As the conservative Financial Times‘ Lex column noted, despite the continued weakness of Japanese government leaders, “Japan’s hidden strengths are being under-appreciated, not least by its own public….In Nietzsche’s formulation, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This disaster will not kill Japan, and it could emerge psychologically stronger if the aftermath of the quake is handled well. Everyone knows there’s no god to put the stone back on the catfish [the Japanese folk wisdom that earthquakes are the thrashings of a giant catfish below the earth]. People have to do it themselves. The greatest cause for optimism about Japan is the reservoir of social capital that has sustained it through two tough decades.” And the FT Lex column wrote: “The social capital of a well-organised government and solidarity among the people is priceless.”

Where does this Japanese solidarity come from?  Slate has a column pointing to several factors:”

Honesty, with incentives. Japanese people may well be more honest than most. But the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most. In a 2003 study on Japan’s famous policy for recovering lost property, West argues that the high rates of recovery have less to do with altruism than with the system of carrots and sticks that incentivizes people to return property they find rather than keep it. For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder’s fee of 5 to 20 percent of its value if the owner picks it up. If they don’t pick it up within six months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella. Japanese learn about this system from a young age, and a child’s first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously. At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order, along the lines of the “broken windows” policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst….

Even Japan’s organized crime (the yakuza) has their rules and culture.  As Slate observes, “They make their money off extortion, prostitution, and drug trafficking. But they consider theft grounds for expulsion….

“That’s not to say that a culture of reciprocity and community doesn’t play a role in the relatively calm response to the quake. It’s just that these characteristics are reinforced by systems and institutions. Adelstein quotes an old Japanese saying that explains the reciprocal mindset: “Your kindness will be rewarded in the end. Charity is a good investment.” But there’s a flipside, too: Unkindness will be punished.”  [Slate, “Why so little looting in Japan“, 3/17/11, Christoper Beam.]

Contrast this report of high levels of Japanese trustworthiness with this AP report of a coziness between the nuclear power industry executives and the government: ” ‘Everything is a secret,’ said Kei Sugaoka, a former nuclear power plant engineer in Japan who now lives in California. ‘There’s not enough transparency in the industry.’ Sugaoka worked at the same utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant where workers are racing to prevent a full meltdown following Friday’s 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami. In 1989 Sugaoka received an order that horrified him: edit out footage showing cracks in plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators. Sugaoka alerted his superiors in the Tokyo Electric Power Co., but nothing happened – for years. He decided to go public in 2000. Three Tepco executives lost their jobs.” [AP, “Nuclear Power Industry has History of Scandals“, 3/17/11]

Nevertheless, assuming that the Japanese are more honest or trusting, these are not monolithic concepts. If one graphed average Japanese levels of trust of various out-groups (say trust of family, trust of kin, trust of co-workers, trust of neighbors, trust of strangers) you get at what sociologists refer to as the “radius of trust”.  The Japanese have very high levels of trust of family and kin, much higher than Americans, for example.  But the slope of this trust line trails off much more steeply towards distrust as one gets towards more distal groups.  The same line plotted for an average American would look much flatter, with more similar levels (than in Japan) for closer in and more distal groups.  As a result, trust of family is much higher in Japan, but trust in strangers is, on average, higher for Americans. It will thus be important for the Japanese to use approaches, like the emperor’s recent remarks, to help build a stronger sense of communal trust with more distant groups.

Solidarity: although the Japanese do have a strong sense of solidarity, this has often been built off of high levels of distrust or a social shunning of outsiders:  for example, the ainu (indigenous Japanese) are treated quite poorly, in the same way as Americans treat Native Americans.  The strong sense of social solidarity makes it far more difficult for westerners (gaijin) to be truly accepted into Japanese society.  Moreover, the relative low levels of diversity in Japan, make it easier to have this sense of solidarity than in a far more diverse place than the US.

In addition, it is extremely important to differentiate short-term from longer-term social capital and altruism in a post-disaster situation.  High social capital in the immediate aftermath of disasters is nothing unique to the Japanese.  As my colleague Bob Putnam has written, almost all disasters produce initial high levels of social capital as people work to help stricken neighbors or countrymen.  The $64,000 question is the staying power of these impulses.  America saw a quick wave of civicness and altruism post 9/11 that fizzled within 6 months (as our polling showed).  [See Putnam’s “A Better Society in a Time of War“] The real litmus test for Japan’s recovery will be their level of co-operation andaltruism a year or two from now.  Along these lines, some sort of continual brownouts for the rest of the country, as bad as they may be for the economy, may help all of them to have a sense of participation in the pain and suffering of those in the Northeast of Honshu who have suffered the most.

See also, “Why the Japanese Aren’t Looting” (Thomas Lifson, American Thinker, 3/15/11) and “Why the Japanese behave better than Westerners” (The Telegraph, Ed West, 3/18/11)

Mayor Daley building libraries and social capital

Mayor Daley speaking in a Chicago library

James Warren describes in the NY Times the social impact of Mayor Daley’s reading efforts (20 OneBook, One Chicago picks) and his legacy of community building through libraries.  Excerpt:

So far, he [Mayor Daley] has built or renovated 55 libraries…..

“Through the scores of libraries he’s built, like the Near North Branch, at the juncture of diverse neighborhoods, he’s encouraged us to develop social bridges across our differences,” said Thomas H. Sander, an expert on social and civic engagement at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University. “That’s all the more important in an era of rampant inequality and heightened segregation.”

Libraries are still about serving people, but book circulation is not the primary goal. The trick is enlarging the transactions, especially electronic ones, and measuring the number of people coming in the door, not just books going out the door, said Lew Feldstein, co-author with Robert Putnam of “Better Together,” a study in community-building amid the well-chronicled decline in civic engagement.

“Libraries like Chicago’s, which have been in the lead in the country, have become strong community centers — helping new immigrants become citizens, acquire language skills, get advice on filling out city forms,” Mr. Feldstein said. “Kids come after school to study and schmooze and hang with their buddies.”

Read, “Daley’s Legacy of Libraries, Culture and Literacy” (NY Times, James Warren, March 5, 2011)

Putnam and Jeb Bush discussing immigration in Denver

Welland Memorial to immigrant labor; photo by Bill Strong

Excerpt from Denver Post story:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said today that if his children walked the streets of Phoenix they might look awfully suspicious to police. His wife Columba is from Mexico.

Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam told the same crowd of city officials from across the country at the Denver Convention Center that his grandchildren might likewise draw suspicion. His daughter married a Latino man, he said.

“I think it’s not right that they could be picked up just because of the way they look,” Putnam said.

Bush and Putnam spoke and then fielded questions at a National League of Cities convention about immigration issues including the controversial Arizona immigration law.

The law aims to detain, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants. The federal government has won an injunction blocking parts of the law, including a section requiring police to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. Arizona has appealed.

A group of conservative lawmakers in Colorado is considering introducing an Arizona-style immigration bill in the legislature in January.

Read “Denver forum speakers question Arizona immigration law ” (Denver Post, December 4, 2010, by Kirk Mitchell)

Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam told the same crowd of city officials from across the country at the Denver Convention Center that his grandchildren might likewise draw suspicion. His daughter married a Latino man, he said.

“I think it’s not right that they could be picked up just because of the way they look,” Putnam said.

Bush and Putnam spoke and then fielded questions at a National League of Cities convention about immigration issues including the controversial Arizona immigration law.

Read “Denver forum speakers question Arizona immigration law” (December 4, 2010, Denver Post, Kirk Mitchell)

Young Americans dropping out of religion, other American Grace findings by Putnam/Campbell

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Robert D. Putnam (Harvard) and David Campbell (Notre Dame) recently previewed selected themes from their forthcoming book American Grace at the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that draws a select group of the leading journalists on religion in America.

As Michael Gerson, ex-speechwriter to President George Bush and one of the Pew Forum attendees, noted in his opening paragraph in a recent nationally syndicated and well-nuanced op-ed in the Washington Post:

“There is a book that everyone will be talking about — when it appears over a year from now. American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives, being written by…Putnam and… Campbell, is already creating a buzz. Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is the pre-eminent academic expert on American civic life. Campbell is his rising heir. And the book they haven’t yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable.”

Putnam and Campbell’s analysis draws on the Faith Matters data they collected — a national, authoritative large-scale, hour-long survey on religion (beliefs, belonging and behavior),  social and political engagement, and religious and political beliefs.  They followed up in a very rare panel survey, reinterviewing the same respondents 6-9 months later to understand the stability of our religion and religious beliefs and to get traction on the issue of causation.  Their research also entails a dozen to fifteen in-depth case studies of religious denominations and churches of many stripes across all parts of the nation.

American Grace finds evidence of unprecedented polarization along religious and political lines, with politics driving changes in religious attendance rather than the reverse!  But amidst the deepening divides, they find a startlingly high level of support on all sides for religious diversity. Most deeply religious Americans reject the idea of a theocratic society run by Christian ayatollahs, while most secular Americans are quite comfortable with the idea of a society infused with religious and moral values.  In short, they argue, America today represents a historical rarity—a society that is both deeply religious and deeply tolerant.  [For example, Americans believe that Americans of other religions can go to heaven, even Christians of non-Christians.  Moreover, 8 of 10 Americans think there are “basic truths in many religions” and 85% of Americans say that religious diversity is good for the country.]

Here are a few of their interesting findings:

  • Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5-6 times the historic rate (30-40% have no religion today versus 5-10% a generation ago).  But youth’s religious disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics.  Putnam and Campbell expect, given the remarkable history of American religious entrepreneurship (from Mormonism to revival meetings to megachurches), that this disaffection from religion is temporary: religious entrepreneurs will rise to offer these young Americans the less politicized religion that they crave.
  • Americans today inherit both religion and congregation far less than their parents and grandparents did and there is remarkable religious fluidity, with between 1/3 and 1/2 of all Americans changing religion from the one they were born into.  [The lower bound does not count a denominational shift like that from Methodists to Calvinists as a switch and only counts a change in religion from Judaism to Buddhism or from Baptist to no-religion.]  And there has been remarkably more entrepreneurial sorting of congregations and congregation shopping with congregants finding a religious home within a denomination that maximally meets their wants and needs (sometimes through stricter “churches”, sometimes through looser ones).
  • There is a remarkable degree of religious bridging in our social networks: approximately 70% of Americans have at least some extended family of a different religion than they are, and this rises to 75% for closest friends, and 85% of Americans who live among at least some neighbors of a different religion.  The interlinkage of these religious networks helps to constrain any message of intolerance that parishioners get from the pulpit.
  • Religious Americans are better citizens than non-religious ones (they give more to secular causes, volunteer more for secular causes, and join more, to mention a few markers of good citizenship). However, it is not their particular theology that predicts good citizenship, but the extent to which they are embedded in a friendship network of religious others (regardless of their religion). [Putnam refers to these religious friends as “powerful, supercharged friends.”]  So it is religious social networks, not teachings from the pulpit that are key to them being 3-4 times more generous than the most secular Americans.

American Grace will come out in October 2010.

Michael Gerson’s syndicated Op-Ed “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” is here. (Wash. Post, 5/8/09)

See “Getting to Know You” (Wall Street Journal by Naomi Schaefer Riley, 5/15/09) [which discusses the extent of religious bridging social capital in America, and how having friends of different religions changes ones views toward that religion]

Also, see “Religious People Make Better Citizens” (BeliefNet.org)

Excerpt below from “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” By Michael Gerson:

“[R]eligious affiliation has declined in America since World War II, especially among the young. The change was not gradual or linear. It arrived, according to Putnam, in “one shock and two aftershocks.” The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents at the same age — the probable result, says Putnam, of a “very rapid change in morals and customs.”

“This retreating tide of religion affected nearly every denomination equally — except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious “entrepreneurs” such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right — the first aftershock.

“But this reaction provoked a reaction — the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I’m not interested.” The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable — both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans now in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 percent or 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated…. Putnam calls this “a stunning development.” As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn’t changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, “more people are very religious and many are not at all.” And these beliefs have become “correlated with partisan politics….There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives.”