Today we start with the first chapter, “The American Dream: Myths and Realities”. I’ll summarize it, then offer some reflections, followed by questions.
Here Putnam lays out his thesis, while introducing his narrative concept. Glancing ahead to the rest of the book, chapter 1 looks like a condensed version of the whole thing, perhaps an overture or executive summary.
The main idea of the book is that income inequality has surged over the past half century, creating a rising generation of children split by a nearly caste-like economic divide. “That nationwide increase in class inequality – how the class-based opportunity gap among young people was widened in recent decades – is the subject of this book.” (19)
The narrative conceit or hook focuses on the Ohio town of Port Clinton, where Putnam grew up. Port Clinton will stand in for America at large, providing characters and social detail to ground the larger discussions: a microcosm. These characters’ mini-biographies will embody those larger trends.
That town focus enables a strong historical arc, which supports comparisons and contrasts. The 1959 generation experienced “remarkable” economic and educational mobility, but their children saw rising economic inequality and “no educational advance beyond their parents.” (7-8)
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. (29; emphases added)
A key detail about comparing 1959 with 2015 is a reversal in the roles of three mechanisms of social oppression:
[G]ender and racial biases remain powerful, but as barriers to success they would represent less burdensome obstacles for Libby, Jesse, and Cheryl today than they did in the 1950s. By contrast, in modern America one barrier would loom much larger than it did back then: their class origins. (19)
Race and gender are getting less bad, but class is worsening.
Putnam sees Port Clinton – and, by extension, America – dividing economically. “The story of Port Clinton… is not simply about the collapse of the working class, because the same years have witnessed the birth of a new upper class.” (21) This appears geographically:
[I]f you drove east from downtown Port Clinton along East Harbor Road, the census tract to your left along the Catawba lakeshore had a child poverty rate of 1 percent, where the…. other side of the road had a child poverty rate of 51 percent. (22)
In fact what has emerged is “a kind of incipient class apartheid” (39), as “[m]ore and more families live either in uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor neighborhoods” (38).
Education now expresses this divide, as “increasing class-based residential segregation has been translated into de facto class-based school segregation.” (39) Marriage also reflects this divide:
During the first half of the [20th] century, marrying outside one’s social class became steadily more common. After mid-century, however, that trend reversed itself. (40)
Other social and cultural divides are opening up in the wake of this class split. Putnam lists a variety of ways whereby poor families are damaged or disadvantaged compared to wealthy ones: instability, absent parents, individual isolation, little emotional support, no family dinners, little community support (30).
How did this happen? Putnam offers a catalog of causes: “globalization, technological change and the subsequent increase on ‘returns to education’, de-unionization, superstar compensation, changing social norms, and post-Reagan public policy” (35-6).
The chapter concludes with some notes on method. Putnam distinguishes between absolute and relative social mobility plus equality of opportunity versus equality of outcomes. He explains his choice of social evidence (43-4) and ends with a definitional note.
This is deeply passionate stuff so far. The prose is largely analytic, but fervent language breaks out: “Port Clinton, Ohio, is a split-screen nightmare” (1); “the cursed course of our society” (1); “a kind of incipient class apartheid” (39);”poor and wealthier schoolchildren… are increasingly likely to attend separate and unequal schools” (39). From South African racism to the legal language of American segregation to media and folklore, Putnam is furious across a variety of registers.
Class and culture: Putnam carefully blames economic changes for household problems. “Not surprisingly, given the economic stresses and strains [of deindustrialization] single-parent households in Ottawa County doubled from 1970 to 2010… and the divorce rate quintupled.” (21) This has elicited some criticism from conservatives.
Intersectionality: Putnam wants to focus on class, but race and gender keep creeping back in to shape events and outcomes. Cheryl’s story, for example, strongly emphasizes powerful racism in her 1959-era life (15-18), despite Putnam’s depiction of an economically colorblind epoch.
More on education: going to college for the 1959 generation was well supported by the community, from schools to mentors (8).
One fascinating detail: the representative rich kid from 1959, Frank, actually joined the military and “loved it” (6). What a change from today, where the wealthy tend to avoid the armed forces.
Term note: Putnam seems to avoid the label “baby boomer”. I’m not sure why, but as a GenXer I automatically resent this.
- What do you make of the personal narrative focus on Port Clinton? Does it ground the larger themes? Is the town a good representative of America in recent times, or it too particularly shaped by the northeastern/midwestern rust belt experience?
- Do you see economics or culture driving family crises?
- American readers, do you see similar changes in your community?
- Is Putnam right about relative changes to the three oppressive mechanisms (race, class, gender)?
What else do you make of this?
Next week, chapter 2: “Families”.