February 22, 2016 Print

Photo credit: Cover image from Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

Income inequality is often a focal point for those who view justice in egalitarian terms, but a far bigger problem is a lack of opportunity that often leaves people without hope for a better future. In his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, political science professor Robert Putnam suggests that government investments in public education and extracurricular activities, community colleges, day care subsidies, and more are necessary to bridge the gap. There’s no real evidence, however, that Putnam’s policy prescriptions will achieve his egalitarian goals, explains Matt Warner, Atlas Network’s vice president of programs and institute relations, in a new book review for Cato Journal, published by the Cato Institute.

A significant problem with trying to design public policy that will provide greater long-term opportunities for lower-class children is that there’s no real way to separate correlation and causation, Warner points out. Putnam’s research shows that successful families tend to eat meals together, for instance, but one of his research subjects, a high school dropout named Stephanie, explained that a lack of shared family meals is attributable to personality preferences — not something easily changed by public awareness campaigns.

“Perhaps, as a microtest for a publicly funded education campaign designed to encourage families to adopt the practice, Putnam could tell Stephanie that successful families tend to eat dinner together,” Warner writes. “Of course, to be fair to Stephanie, Putnam would have to clarify that he can’t say whether the act of having the family dinner itself will make any difference. He only knows that those who tend to achieve more also tend to practice that particular habit. In other words, if Stephanie wants to increase the odds of her children capitalizing on future opportunities, Putnam can’t claim with any scientific authority that family dinners will contribute to her success.”

Warner points to the work of cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, a colleague of Putnam’s at Harvard, who argued the science of human behavior shows “that when it comes to public policy, scientists of all stripes are probably better at identifying tradeoffs than they are at resolving them.” Putnam’s research includes valuable insights into the social challenges presented by a lack of opportunity, but there’s no evidence that his policy prescriptions would do anything to solve them — and trying to fix endemic problems by applying the wrong solutions may instead exacerbate them still further.

“Pinker warns that ‘the belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences’ has led to poor social planning at best and, at worst, ‘some of the greatest atrocities in history,’” Warner concludes. “Putnam’s Our Kids presents a lot of data worth reviewing, and some telling stories about life in America today, but his call to action flows not from evidence, but from hope.”