Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Study Guide

Robert Putnam

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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Section 4, Chapter 17 : So What? (Education and Children's Welfare) | Summary



Putnam believes "child development is powerfully shaped by social capital" and makes the claim "social capital keeps bad things from happening to good kids."

To determine whether children in a given state are healthy and happy, Putnam refers to the Kids Count index published annually by the highly respected Annie E. Casey Foundation. Kids Count collects state-by-state statistics on issues ranging from childhood death rate to teen birth rate, juvenile crime rate, and percent of children in poverty. Virtually all of the states in which children are healthy and happy are also states with high Social Capital Index Scores (a scoring system he developed to measure civic and personal engagement).

But, as Putnam says, good outcomes for children may be correlated with high social capital—but that doesn't necessarily mean it is caused by high social capital. He spends the remainder of the chapter examining additional correlations between high social capital and child welfare. He uses statistical analyses to prove other factors such as class size and wealth are less significant than social capital.

Putnam then goes on to say that while the correlation is strong enough to suggest social capital actually causes healthier, happier kids, we don't know exactly why this is the case. Based on statistical analysis and his own theories, he suggests some of the following may help explain the connection:

  • Kids watch less TV in high-social-capital states.
  • When parents are more involved with schools through the PTA, children generally benefit.
  • Children who come from families with close social ties are more likely to graduate from school.

Putnam concludes with the concern that lower social capital is likely to have especially damaging consequences on the quality of formal and informal education in America.


Putnam makes the case that lower social capital is harmful to children. He does not, however, make the point that children with poor educational outcomes and non-existent social capital are likely to undermine America's future. It seems reasonable, however, to assume Putnam does believe America's future is at risk.

The problems with assessing the causes of child welfare and risk are significant. Is the problem related to poverty? Level of education? Violence? Teen pregnancy? Or is it really a matter of social capital? Putnam addresses each of these possible issues, and finds that "socioeconomic and demographic characteristics do matter but so does social capital." In fact, he says, social capital is second only to poverty in protecting children from a wide range of ills including premature birth, dropping out of school, and much more.

While Putnam avoids dramatic language, he does focus on the idea that traditional family structures and situations are most likely to protect children and set them up for success. For example, in describing low-risk neighborhoods for children, Putnam mentions "Kids in low-risk neighborhoods were more than three times as likely as kids in high-risk areas to find a parent home after school." He cites another study that says the most successful children have mothers who "attended church regularly." He spends several pages describing the benefits of traditional Catholic schools and public schools with strong PTAs, suggesting that they provide more and better opportunities for building community among parents and between parents and teachers. "Where these elements aren't present," he says, "parents tend to become disillusioned and distrustful, undermining the community-based social capital so vital to public schools."

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