Francis Fukuyama delivers an engaging critique of Robert Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Financial Times, March 2015). Putnam alerts us to the real reason behind America’s inequality, which is missing in current debates on the subject. His belief is that the gradual decline of the stable, two-parent, mother and father family is at the epicenter of this dilemma.
Putnam wasn’t the first to notice this. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan found a link between the two factors. Even then, there was an obvious relation between the bi-parental family’s disappearance, Afro-American poverty and the resulting increase in drug-use and crime rate in the States. Putnam warns that this trend has now spread to the white population and affects around 70% of families. This figure is alarmingly close to that reported by Moynihan half a century ago.
Fukuyama, following Putnam’s call to arms, hails the importance of the family structure and the need for parents’ commitment to their children’s future. He insists that early childhood stimulation, appropriate role models, stable expectations and family dinners are all “part of the environment needed to produce upwardly mobile adults”. But adds that most of these elements are absent in the lives of Americans from less educated backgrounds. He states that economic inequality becomes “self-reinforcing through the mechanism of absent families”.
Both authors review current solutions, some of which have been in practice for decades. Education reforms, for instance, come under the spotlight with Fukuyama’s critique of the No Child Left Behind Act. He points out that schools have “only a limited impact on life outcomes” when compared to that of friends and family.
Nevertheless, “the proper workings of democracy”, says Fukuyama, “rest on a foundation of habits and virtues that reside in the underlying society and not in the formal political system, or in the economic incentives these institutions create”. Education is as essential as the family unit when it comes to our personal and social development. In fact, he goes on to claim that “strong families are critical in America as incubators of broader social engagement.”
This is a path that our own society is following too.
There are certain taboos – products of society focused on individual gratification – that make it harder to reconstruct the family unit.How can we rebuild the family unit if the need to do so is not recognized or taken seriously? In the meantime, the least we can try to do is learn from the more “modern, advanced and dynamic” societies that came before us…