Quick Look: Secure Attachment Continues to Fall … For Some But Not All

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I recently finished reading Robert Putnam’s new book entitled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Back in 2000, Putnam released his now classic book entitled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In many ways, Our Kids updates us on what has happened in the fifteen years since the release of Bowling Alone. Simply put, Bowling Alone talked about the decline of 1950s communities such as those depicted in TV shows of the time: Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best would be examples. With the decline of American communities, not only would Dennis the Menace (another 50s TV show character) not be able to freely roam his neighborhood (and pester Mr. and Mrs. Wilson), the adult Dennis would have a tough time joining certain community organizations like The Lion’s Club or local bowling leagues (thus the book title Bowling Alone).

Back in 2000, Putnam predicted that after a period of decline, the American community would make a comeback. Fifteen years later Our Kids shows that Putnam was partially right: there has been a return to the communities of the 1950s (with a few changes), but not for all. Believe it or not, rich families are returning to the communities of the 1950s where kids are able to roam the neighborhood (now gated though) and return home to two married parents. Putnam, in Our Kids, defines “rich family” as a family where one or both parents have a four year college degree. Sadly, poor families (where neither parent has studied beyond high school) have not fared well. Poor families now find themselves in neighborhoods plagued by such social maladies as crime, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Increasingly, poor families are headed by a single parent. Our Kids shows us graph after graph of what Putnam calls a “scissors pattern”: a gap that widens from left to right, not unlike a symbol for “less than” (i.e., <). One such scissors graph depicts what has happened to social trust from 1976 until 2011 (more on this below). Interestingly, social trust declined for both rich and poor families until about 1995 at which point social trust started to rise for rich families and continue to fall for poor families (thus giving us a scissors pattern).

In the rest of this post, I’d like to briefly talk about the scissors pattern behind social trust. There may be a loose association between social trust and secure attachment but I would argue that where goes social trust so too secure attachment. If I am correct in making this argument then secure attachment continues to decline for poor families while secure attachment is actually on the rise for rich families, those families making a return to the neighborhoods of the 1950s (again, with a few modifications such as dad spending more time on housework, mom spending more time at the office, and homes surrounded by high walls and gates).

At about page 220 in Our Kids, Putnam writes the following:

That poor kids are increasingly living in untrustworthy social environments is confirmed by trends in social trust among high school seniors over the past four decades, as measured by a question that asked kids to choose between two options: “Most people can be trusted” or “You can’t be too careful in dealing with people.”

Putnam writes the following parenthetically: “(This often used question taps feelings not merely about neighbor’s, but about one’s experiences with other people in general.)” I would argue that this type of question taps into feelings centered on attachment patterns. Recall from an earlier post that Bowlby does draw a parallel between secure attachment and Erik Erikson’s idea of basic trust. Putnam continues thus:

Answers to this simple question have been shown to predict health, happiness, and other indicators of human thriving, perhaps because constant fear of one’s social environment puts continuing stress on the human body.

Attachment studies have shown that insecurely attached children and adults, although appearing to be calm on the outside, are actually under constant emotional stress as indicated by elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Putnam gives us this “take home” statement: “Around the world, social trust is almost always higher among haves than have-nots, and that pattern has long held true for American youth.”

I’ll end this Quick Look by giving Putnam the last word:

Trust [and so too secure attachment I would argue] has fallen among youth of all social backgrounds during the past half century. However, as Figure 5.5 [which graphs social trust—see Our Kids for graph] shows, during the past several decades the long-standing class gap in social trust among American adolescents has significantly widened, producing yet another scissors chart. From the late 1970s to the early 2010s the fraction of 12th graders from more educated homes (the top third) who say that people can be trusted fell by roughly a third, whereas the fraction of trusters from the least educated third of homes fell by roughly one half. Nearly six out of seven poor kids nowadays choose the distrustful option [my emphasis].

OK, I’ll have the last word: Yeow! OK, one more quote by Putnam because I think this really drives the message home:

In a bitter Facebook posting, Mary Sue (an impoverished young woman we met in Port Clinton) expressed a common view among poor kids across the country: “Love [e.g., Bowlby’s affectional bonds] gets you hurt; trust gets you killed.”

If insecure attachment had a motto, it would be: “Love gets you hurt; trust gets you killed.”

OK, OK … this is such an important point that I have to give you this Putnam “bottom line”: “Living in poor neighborhoods remains almost always a high-risk factor for disorder, suboptimal parenting, and adverse child development.”

Addendum—Where Are the Gaps Coming From and What To Do About Them:

I do not wish to leave the reader to wonder, “Where are these widening gaps coming from and what can we do about them?” As you would expect, Putnam points to a number of factors that play a role in widening the gap between the rich and the poor (principally defined along the dimension of education attainment). However, Putnam points to one overarching cause that seems to link the various factors together: the privatization of care. Surprisingly Putnam refers to the 1950s, 60s, and the first part of the 70s as being rather communal and egalitarian as far as care is concerned.

When Hillary Clinton suggests that it takes a village to raise kids, the village she speaks of had its golden age during the 1950s, 60s, and the first part of the 1970s. These are the villages, if you will, that began to decline in the mid-1970s (and Putnam writes about such decline in Bowling Alone). Rather than see them as communal and egalitarian, many feminists framed the villages of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s as places that oppressed and exploited women. Why? Well, as Jeremy Rifkin points out in his 1996 book entitled The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, liberals in general and feminists in specific do not like volunteerism because they consider volunteer labor to be essentially free or unpaid labor. Being a mother and providing care to children, then, is framed as providing unpaid labor. This agrees with the position that Evelyn Nakano Glenn presents in her 2012 book entitled Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America (a book that I have blogged about before).

As Putnam points out in Our Kids, the real cost of care is very expensive. Here in the US, staples such as gasoline, wheat products, and sugar are subsidized by the state and federal government. Remove those subsidies and we would know the real cost of gasoline, wheat, and sugar. A gallon of gas would cost about $7.00 or $8.00, a loaf of bread would be about $3.00 or $4.00, and a gallon of soda would be right up there with a gallon of gas. (Take a trip to Hawaii to get a sense for these real costs.)

Public education used to be heavily subsidized. A couple of years ago I received a newsletter from my alma matter the University of Texas at Dallas. This newsletter contained an article by the president of UTD, Dr. David E. Daniel. Dr. Daniel was talking about the rising cost of tuition. He said that in the early 1980s (when I was at UTD) for every dollar of tuition, the state and federal government kicked in about forty cents. Today (in 2013) that amount is down to about four cents. We are now seeing the real cost of education. It’s very expensive.

What Putnam tells us in Our Kids is that with increased levels of privatized care (starting in the mid-1970s) we are seeing the real cost of care. It’s very expensive. Some families are now spending more on day care than they are on their mortgage. What Putnam tells us is that rich families are able to absorb the cost of privatized care relatively easily; poor families have a very difficult time. So, what can be done? Essentially Putnam suggests increasing subsidies to care: increasing the subsidies to day care and pre-K, increasing subsidies to home visitation programs, increasing subsidies to education, etc. Returning to the good old days of Leave It to Beaver, the Donna Reed Show, and the Andy Griffith Show probably will not happen, at least for the poor.