Putnam: Our kids, the American dream in crisis


Our Kids is a rare combination of individual testimony and rigorous evidence. Putnam provides a disturbing account of the American dream that should initiate a deep examination of the future of our country. Professor Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, is available now for pre-order.

Robert Putnam—about whom The Economist said, “his scholarship is wide-ranging, his intelligence luminous, his tone modest, his prose unpretentious and frequently funny”—offers a personal but also authoritative look at this new American crisis. Putnam begins with his high school class of 1959 in Port Clinton, Ohio. By and large the vast majority of those students—“our kids”—went on to lives better than those of their parents. But their children and grandchildren have had harder lives amid diminishing prospects. Putnam tells the tale of lessening opportunity through poignant life stories of rich and poor kids from cities and suburbs across the country, drawing on a formidable body of research done especially for this book.

The American Dream Is In Crisis, And Here’s How I Know It

My hometown was, in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background.

A half century later, however, life in Port Clinton, Ohio, is a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks. And the story of Port Clinton turns out to be sadly typical of America.

How this transformation happened, why it matters, and how we might begin to alter the cursed course of our society is the subject of my new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

The most rigorous economic and social history now available suggests that socioeconomic barriers in America (and in Port Clinton) in the 1950s were at their lowest ebb in more than a century: economic and educational expansion were high; income equality was relatively high; class segregation in neighborhoods and schools was low; class barriers to intermarriage and social intercourse were low; civic engagement and social solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.

Though small and not very diverse racially, Port Clinton in the 1950s was in all other respects a remarkably representative microcosm of America, demographically, economically, educationally, socially, and even politically. (Ottawa County, of which Port Clinton is county seat, is the bellwether county in the bellwether state of the United States—that is, the county whose election results have historically been closest to the national outcome.)

The life stories of my high school classmates show that the opportunities open to Don and Libby, two poor white kids, and even to Jesse and Cheryl, two poor black kids, to rise on the basis of their own talents and energy were not so different from the opportunities open to Frank, the only real scion of privilege in our class.

No single town or city could possibly represent all of America, and Port Clinton in the 1950s was hardly paradise. As in the rest of America at the time, minorities in Port Clinton suffered serious discrimination and women were frequently marginalized. Few of us, including me, would want to return there without major reforms. But social class was not a major constraint on opportunity.

When our gaze shifts to Port Clinton in the twenty-first century, however, the opportunities facing rich kids and poor kids today are radically disparate. Port Clinton today is a place of stark class divisions, where (according to school officials) wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the high school lot next to decrepit junkers that homeless classmates drive away each night to live in. The changes in Port Clinton that have led to growing numbers of kids, of all races and both genders, being denied the promise of the American Dream—changes in economic circumstance, in family structure and parenting, in schools, and in neighborhoods—are surprisingly representative of America writ large.

Class differences were not absent in Port Clinton in the 1950s, but those differences were muted. The children of manual workers and of professionals came from similar homes and mixed unselfconsciously in schools and neighborhoods, in scout troops and church groups. The class contrasts that matter so much today (even in Port Clinton)—in economic security, family structure, parenting, schooling, neighborhoods, and so on—were minimal in that era. Virtually everyone in the PCHS class of 1959, whatever their background, lived with two parents, in homes their parents owned, and in neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else’s first name

Our parents, almost universally homemaker moms and breadwinner dads, were not especially well educated. Indeed, barely one in 20 of them had graduated from college, and a full third of them hadn’t even graduated from high school. (For the most part, they had completed their schooling before high school education became nearly universal.) But almost everyone in town had benefited from widely shared postwar prosperity, and few of our families were poverty-stricken.

The very few kids in town who came from wealthy backgrounds, like Frank, made every effort to hide that fact. Some dads worked the assembly lines at the local auto part factories, or in the nearby gypsum mines, or at the local Army base, or on small family farms. Others, like my dad, were small businessmen whose fortunes rose and fell with the business cycle. In that era of full employment and strong unions, few of our families experienced joblessness or serious economic insecurity.

The escalator that had carried most of the class of 1959 upward suddenly halted when our own children stepped on.”

Most of my classmates, whatever their social origins, were active in sports, music, drama, and other extracurricular activities. Friday night football games attracted much of the town’s population. Seen a half century later, my classmates (now mostly retired) have experienced astonishing upward mobility. Nearly three quarters of us obtained more education than our parents, and the vast majority made it higher up the economic ladder. In fact, some kids from less well-off backgrounds have climbed further up that ladder than kids from more comfortable, better-educated backgrounds.

By contemporary standards, our class’s absolute level of upward educational mobility was remarkable, a reflection of the high school and college revolutions of the twentieth century. Half the sons and daughters of high school dropouts went on to college. Many of those who were the first in their family to complete high school ended up also being the first to complete college—a remarkable jump in a single generation. Even more striking, although the two black students in our class contended with racial prejudice and came from homes in which neither parent had completed grade school, both earned postgraduate degrees. In 1950s Port Clinton, socioeconomic class was not nearly so formidable a barrier for kids of any race, white or black, as it would become in the twenty-first century. By way of comparison, the children of the members of the class of 1959 would, on average, experience no educational advance beyond their parents. The escalator that had carried most of the class of 1959 upward suddenly halted when our own children stepped on.

Class Disparities in Port Clinton in the Twenty-first Century

As my classmates and I marched down the steps after graduation in 1959, none of us had any inkling that change was coming. Almost half of us headed off to college, and those who stayed in town had every reason to expect they would get a job (if they were male), get married, and lead a comfortable life, just as their parents had done. For about a decade those expectations were happily met.

But just beyond the horizon an economic, social, and cultural whirlwind was gathering force nationally that would radically transform the life chances of our children and grandchildren. For many people, its effects would be gut-wrenching, for Port Clinton turns out to be a poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades.

The manufacturing foundation upon which Port Clinton’s modest prosperity had been built in the 1950s and 1960s began to tremble in the 1970s. The big Standard Products factory at the east end of town had provided nearly 1,000 steady, well-paying blue-collar jobs in the 1950s, but in the 1970s the payroll was trimmed to less than half that, and after more than two decades of layoffs and givebacks, the plant gates on Maple Street finally closed in 1993. Twenty years later, only the hulking ruins of the plant remain, with EPA signs on the barbed wire fence warning of environmental hazard.

But the closing of the Standard Products factory, the Army base, and the gypsum mines were merely the most visible symbols of the town’s pervasive economic collapse. Manufacturing employment in Ottawa County, of which Port Clinton is by far the largest town, plummeted from 55 percent of all jobs in 1965 to 25 percent in 1995 and kept falling. Unemployment rose and fell with the national economic tides, but the local booms were never as good as the national booms, and the local hard times were much worse. As late as the 1970s, real wages locally were slightly above the national average, but during the next four decades they fell further and further behind, bottoming out at 25 percent below the national average. By 2012 the average worker in Ottawa County had not had a real raise for nearly half a century, and is now paid 16 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather (or grandmother) was in the early 1970s.

Photo: Vicki Timman/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The Port Clinton population, which had jumped 53 percent in the three decades prior to 1970, suddenly stagnated in the 1970s and 1980s, and then fell by 17 percent in the two decades after 1990. Commutes to jobs got longer and longer, as desperate local workers sought employment elsewhere. Most of the downtown shops of my youth stand empty and derelict, driven out of business partly by the Family Dollar and the Walmart on the outskirts of town, and partly by the gradually shrinking paychecks of Port Clinton consumers.

But the story of Port Clinton over the last half century—like the history of America over these decades—is not simply about the collapse of the working class, because the same years have witnessed the birth of a new upper class.

Port Clinton occupies a lovely site on the shores of Lake Erie. In my youth, small summer cottages and modest resorts and fishing camps dotted those shores, interspersed among fruit orchards, and the shoreline felt available to us all. In the past two decades, however, while the traditional economy of Port Clinton was imploding, wealthy lawyers and doctors and businesspeople from Cleveland and Columbus and other major cities of the Midwest have discovered the charms of the lakeshore and the nearby offshore islands and have begun to take these areas over—for second homes, for retirement, and occasionally even for a better quality of life, at the expense of longer commutes to their well-paying jobs back in the city. Joined by some fortunate local developers, the newcomers have built elaborate mansions and gated communities. These now line the shore almost uninterruptedly for 20 miles on either side of town. Luxury condos ring golf courses and lagoons filled with opulent yachts. One home along the shore in the upscale Catawba area includes an indoor theater and an athletic court.

Nowadays you can read ads in adjacent columns of the real estate pages of the Port Clinton News-Herald for near million-dollar mansions and dilapidated double-wides, and it is possible to walk in less than ten minutes from wealthy estates on the shoreline to impoverished trailer parks inland. The distribution of income in Ottawa County, once among the most egalitarian in the country, began to skew over these decades: the number of residents at both the top and the bottom increased, and the middle slumped. In 2010, the median household income in the Catawba Island area was more than twice the median household income in the adjoining census tract. Moreover, the pace and concentration of the transformation has been stunning.

Comparing Port Clinton kids in the 1950s with Port Clinton kids today, the opportunity gap has widened dramatically, partly because affluent kids now enjoy more advantages than affluent kids then, but mostly because poor kids now are in much worse shape than their counterparts then. Compared to working-class kids in 1959, their counterparts today lead troubled, isolated, hopeless lives.

Port Clinton is just one small town among many, of course—but its trajectory during the past five decades, and the divergent destinies of its children, are not unique. Port Clinton is not simply a Rust Belt story, for example, although it is that. Similar patterns exist in communities all over the country, from Bend, Oregon, to Atlanta, and from Orange County, California, to Philadelphia. But first, zooming out from our close focus on Port Clinton to a wide-angle view of contemporary American society, let’s examine the principle of equality and what it actually means for Americans today.

Inequality in America: The Broader Picture

Contemporary discussion of inequality in America often conflates two related but distinct issues:

  • Equality of income and wealth. The distribution of income and wealth among adults in today’s America—framed by the Occupy movement as the 1 percent versus the 99 percent—has generated much partisan debate during the past several years. Historically, however, most Americans have not been greatly worried about that sort of inequality: we tend not to begrudge others their success or care how high the socioeconomic ladder is, assuming that everyone has an equal chance to climb it, given equal merit and energy.
  • Equality of opportunity and social mobility. The prospects for the next generation—that is, whether young people from different backgrounds are, in fact, getting onto the ladder at about the same place and, given equal merit and energy, are equally likely to scale it—pose an altogether more momentous problem in our national culture. Beginning with the “all men are created equal” premise of our national independence, Americans of all parties have historically been very concerned about this issue.

These two types of equality are obviously related, because the distribution of income in one generation may affect the distribution of opportunity in the next generation—but they are not the same thing. The distribution of income and wealth among today’s parents forms a crucial backdrop to our story. However: Do youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds in fact have roughly equal life chances, and has that changed in recent decades?

Americans are today divided about how much (if at all) income and wealth should be redistributed, Robin Hood–like, from today’s affluent to today’s poor. More than two thirds of us (concentrated among Democrats, minorities, and the poor, but including majorities of people of all political persuasions and walks of life) favor a more equal distribution than obtains today. While large majorities favor pragmatic steps to limit inequality of condition, we are also philosophical conservatives, suspicious of the ability of government to redress inequality and convinced that responsibility for an individual’s well-being rests chiefly with him or her

On the other hand, we are less divided about the desirability of upward mobility without regard to family origins. About 95 percent of us endorse the principle that “everyone in America should have equal opportunity to get ahead,” a broad consensus that has hardly wavered since opinion surveys began more than a half century ago. (The consensus is a bit shakier when the question is whether our society should do “whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” Nine in ten Americans agree, but only 48 percent of the top quintile in terms of socioeconomic status agree strongly, as compared to 70 percent of the bottom quintile.)

About 90 percent of Americans of all political persuasions say they support more spending on public education to try to ensure that everyone gets a fair start in life. And if forced to choose, Americans at all income levels say by nearly three to one that it is “more important for this country . . . to ensure everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic standing [than] to reduce inequality in America.” As the former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has phrased it, “A bedrock American principle is the idea that all individuals should have the opportunity to succeed on the basis of their own effort, skill, and ingenuity.”

Toward Two Americas

So, when it comes to class differences in America, what have been the trends, now and in the past?

Graphically, the ups and downs of inequality in America during the twentieth century trace a gigantic U, beginning and ending in two Gilded Ages, but with a long period of relative equality around midcentury. The economic historians Claudia Golden and Lawrence Katz have described the pattern as “a tale of two half-centuries.”

Income inequality was momentarily reduced by the immediate impact of the Great Recession in 2008–2009, but in the ensuing years the trend toward increasing affluence at the very top, coupled with stagnation or worse for the rest of the society, resumed and even accelerated. From 2009 to 2012, the real incomes of the top 1 percent of American families rose 31 percent, while the real incomes of the bottom 99 percent barely budged (up less than half a percentage point).

The causes of this breathtaking increase in inequality during the past three to four decades are much debated—globalization, technological change and the consequent increase in “returns to education,” de-unionization, superstar compensation, changing social norms, and post-Reagan public policy—though the basic shift toward inequality occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations. No serious observer doubts that the past 40 years have witnessed an almost unprecedented growth in inequality in America. Ordinary Americans, too, have gradually become aware of rising inequality, though they underestimate the extent of the shift. The growth of income inequality—especially the gap between the ultrarich and everyone else—has been widely discussed in the public square in recent years.

This growing gap between rich and poor is reflected in many other measures of well-being, including wealth, happiness, and even life expectancy.

Less discussed than the growing gaps between affluent and impoverished Americans, but equally insidious, is the fact that the ballooning economic gap has been accompanied by growing de facto segregation of Americans along class lines. In Port Clinton of the 1950s, affluent kids and poor kids lived near one another, went to school together, played and prayed together, and even dated one another. These kids received different economic and cultural endowments from their parents, of course, because Port Clinton was not a commune. However, kids (and their parents) had acquaintances and even close friends across class lines. Nowadays, by contrast, fewer and fewer of us, in Port Clinton and elsewhere, are exposed in our daily lives to people outside our own socioeconomic niche.

Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages (and probably also civic associations, workplaces, and friendship circles) means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility— college-going classmates or cousins or middle-class neighbors, who might take a working-class kid from the neighborhood under their wing. Moreover, class segregation means that members of the upper middle class are less likely to have firsthand knowledge of the lives of poor kids and thus are unable even to recognize the growing opportunity gap.

The bottom line: Take a look at what has been happening to kids in the past three decades—the families into which they’ve been born, the parenting and schooling they’ve received, the communities within which they’ve been raised. We know that those experiences will inevitably have a powerful effect on how well they do in life. Whatever changes we can detect in these areas will foreshadow changes in social mobility—which, distressingly, according to the evidence I’ve reviewed, seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American Dream.

Adapted and excerpted from Our Kids by Robert D. Putnam, obtained with permission from Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2015 by Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Nationally honored as a leading humanist and a renowned scientist, he has written fourteen books and has consulted for the last four US Presidents. His research program, the Saguaro Seminar, is dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America.

You can follow him on Twitter, visit his Facebook page, and read more at RobertDPutnam.com





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