Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 1

Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_With this post I kick off an online reading of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Today we start with the first chapter, “The American Dream: Myths and Realities”.

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 I’ll summarize it, then offer some reflections, followed by questions.

1. Summary

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.

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” (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).

Port Clinton from the air

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.

2. Reflections

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.

Roadkill Cafe sign

Sign in Port Clinton, 2011.

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.

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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.

3. Questions

  • 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”.

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(Port Clinton from the air photo from Wikipedia; Roadkill Cafe photo by Greg Habermann)

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31 Responses to Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 1

  1. valbock says:

    I think the parallels between Port Clinton and the rest of the nation are fairly apt, but then, I’m a Midwesterner. His small town is a 50 minute commute from Toledo, which may mean it’s an exurb these days — the fate of towns which can serve this way are different from ones which are far from metropolitan areas. Rural towns just get older and poorer, while exurban ones may stratify the way he describes

    I’m very annoyed by the short cut he tells us he will take in the last part of Chapter 1. He tells us that he will use educational attainment, equating “college” educated with “upper class” and “rich”.

    That usage flies in the face of the lived experience of college grads in the post 2008 era, who are un- and under-employed, saddled with debt, and moving into living arrangements independent of their parents at a much slower rate than anyone would expect from “rich” or “upper class” young people. Coming so very shortly after his explication that he is eschewing the usual statistics so that he can give a better picture of what’s happening NOW, it feels like he’s missing something essential.

    I see economics as the primary driver. Culture responds more swiftly to economic pressure than just about any other stimulus. The instability of work situations is often a key stressor underlying choices couples make about whether to marry, whether to stay married, and whether to play an active parenting role.

    Similarly Educators have known for some time that “not everybody is cut out for college” but it’s only now that funding it is becoming more and more out of reach for more families that we see serious public discussion in which this view is entertained.

    • Great comments, Val, and welcome.

      I am especially taken with your distinction between rural and exurban towns. Putnam gets halfway there when he mentions highways and suburbs. I’ll see if he mentions bedroom communities later on.

      “not everybody is cut out for college” – I’ve detected that idea on every campus I’ve worked with over the past decade. But it’s not a concept openly expressed, and we’re still in the “college for everyone” mentality in terms of high school advising, state policies, and federal goals. A collision between the two might be coming up.

  2. Rolin Moe says:

    I went pretty long with my response; posted on a Reclaim Hosting site I forgot I had!
    I had serious troubles with Chapter 1. His narrative device is convenient and sets up stereotypes. He sells his connection to Port Clinton but then removes himself entirely when giving the historical account from 1959. The framing of David’s story, specifically the last paragraph, is downright negligent in my opinion.
    I thought he glossed over race and gender, and I do not see the direct link on class. He says that in Port Clinton 1959 everyone played together, learned together, dated one another. Yet his five stories do not tell of people marrying from the other side of the tracks, nor of relationships any of these people had with one another or with Putnam. And his omission from these stories doesn’t have me thinking about who his subjects were but why he does not tell his story. Is it different; does it not fit his narrative? And the mix of narrative and social science fails IMO.
    I agree with valbock about the education as indicative of class. At least in my education circles, having a degree is in no way linked to the higher class; rather, the academic elite in the ivory towers are part of an eroding middle class or worse (or that is the argument).
    I think the economic problem is a serious one, and I think it could easily stand up without the book’s melodrama and narrative device, which distract me and if taken at face value feed stereotype and hype.
    Personally, I am interested in what transpired between 1959 and today. We get the “manufacturing shut down, mine closed” sorts of things. In Shreveport there was the oil bust to be replaced by riverboat gambling. I see it, but I have trouble believing commercial processes and products are all that is here, otherwise why are we even talking sociology? I hope Putnam focuses in this regard later and stops with the shoehorned stories.

    • Excellent to see you here, Rolin! Grand comments.

      A few responses and questions:
      1) When you write “The framing of David’s story, specifically the last paragraph, is downright negligent in my opinion” – can you say why? And the last para, do you mean the one on page. 29 (starting “In 2012, we asked David”) or the one ending page 30 (starting “Port Clinton is just one small town…”)?
      2) “I am interested in what transpired between 1959 and today” – are you asking about policy? He touches on this briefly (see “Putnam offers a catalog of causes:…”) above, and I’m looking forward to where that goes next.
      3) Devastating point about the 1959 stories not showing the happy town Putnam describes.

    • I found similar conflicts between his claims and backup stories. He seems to use Jesse and Cheryl in particular as evidence of success despite being in a racial minority. But both Jesse and Cheryl have siblings who did NOT succeed, from death to getting in trouble in class for speaking out against a teacher’s racist comments, even to her brother being told he couldn’t buy a home even with money. So who is more “typical” and who should be used as the example moving forward? The rare student who finds success or those who were set up to fail? Even those who “succeeded” did so marginally, perhaps with grades and getting into college, but without being allowed to participate fully in the social world, I’m not sure that is truly success. I’ll be interested to see if Putnam’s definition of success remains focused on education alone.

      I’m actually still in the middle of chapter one but had to check in to see if anyone felt the way I did. I’ll return!

  3. Hi Everybody — I heard Putnam speak at my university a few weeks ago and I’ve already read the whole book, so my comments are influenced by both. He’s impressively, deeply passionate about his issue (inequality of opportunity rather than inequality in general) and emphasized during his talk that he’s met with almost all of the potential 2016 candidates to discuss his findings. That said, he’s also a white patriarch from Harvard and while he tries to “check his privilege” he never really does. I think the narrative trope of Port Clinton is part of his push to bring his findings out of the sociological ivory tower and into mainstream media and conversation. In the same way that “one million dead children is a statistic, but one dead child is a tragedy,” he’s using these narrative anecdotes to try to draw in the general reader (Condescending? probably. Successful? we’ll see).

    • Superb summary, Mary. Thank you also for contributing thoughts on his speech. His bias, or privilege, worries me.

      How did the audience react?

      • I was really glad one of my colleagues didn’t kill him when he said in response to her question (she is an anthropologist and a woman of color), “Let me tell you something about history.” Ouch. Other than that, response was very positive; Lesley University’s mission focuses on public education, social justice and the underserved, so he was definitely preaching to the choir.

      • Ouch!
        I’m delighted to learn that about Lesley. How are you guys doing, looking ahead? Many social justice oriented institutions are worried about their business model.

  4. bboessen says:

    I’m appreciating the structure of the book so far. To me the personal narrative focus seems like it will probably be more of a long game for him in the sense that he’s trading off the immediate, intellectual punch of a statistic, chart, or graph for a slower-burning narrative power that will come as the story of “our kids” develops. For example, having listened just a bit ahead (see below), I know that he continues to return to these stories almost metonymically, i.e., “This experience is not unlike those of David and Cheryl from the first chapter,” where “David” or “Cheryl” stands in for the entire bundle of things we know about those individuals. In that way, his plan seems to be to continue to add nuance to the overall argument by adding new stories that show additional layers of it. The argument will unfold narratively in the sense that each new story will function like a new character in a much larger story world, one focused on a complex argument about inequality of opportunity. If he can pull it off, the stories will balance that intellectual sociological material with the emotional resonance of the collection of those stories (and voices). I feel like we may need to hold our judgment of the technique until at least a few more chapters, perhaps even through til the end.

    As for whether the town works as a microcosm, I had the same thought you apparently did, Bryan, that the rustbelt “flavor” of Port Clinton’s decline will not come across as representative for a large proportion of the US population in the South and especially Southwest and West. But the fact that highlighting the “then” and “now” allows him to bring out the inequality narrative so clearly was probably strategically worth that initial loss of identification in Putnam’s mind.

    One thing I will say in passing is that, while I’m one of the very highly educated (PhD) in the US, I don’t live in a neighborhood that is anything like the affluent ones he describes of his college-educated cohort. So that doesn’t ring very true to me personally. But on the other hand, I think PhD’s in the US are in a fairly unique situation compared to college grads overall, so I’d say I’m a pretty big outlier.

    In response to valbock and Rolin on whether his use of education level as a shorthand is fair/representative/accurate, one way he’s doing that is by talking about “three broad cohorts” – HS diploma; HS and some college; college diploma or more – so he’s including a *huge* group of Americans in his “top” tier. I wouldn’t call it a “higher class” as Rolin does, Putnam’s individual stories notwithstanding. Instead, maybe just a rhetorically useful segmentation that feeds his larger argument. For example, as I noted above, there are lots of demographic groups who get lumped into the “college diploma or more” category, and Putnam is averaging out all of us to make that larger argument more clearly (and forcefully). So I’d critique him on his choice of individual kids on which to focus, and how they present a skewed image of that college-educated cohort (at least in this first chapter, but I’m again reserving judgment on the direction of the argument overall.

    *One other note: as I mentioned on the invite post, I’m listening to it as an audiobook, and while I’m already seeing some issues with that (e.g.: no idea which para Rolin and Bryan are referring to), I’ll trade that off for being able to engage the text while walking or driving. 🙂

    • Brett, I admire how well you write about this. Have you thought about blogging it yourself, or doing a long-form review for a journal?

      Great points about the time versus geography gambit of using Port Clinton and about the breakdown of educational degree groups. I like your assessment of Putnam’s character-driven structure, which sounds more and more like a serious effort to write compelling nonfiction for the trade book audience.

      On format: check Rolin’s blog post, linked above. He’s reading this on Kindle, so we now have three different presentations of the text: print, ebook, and audiobook.

      I said this chapter felt like an overture, a sketch of the rest of the book to follow. It’s good to know the characters and town become major themes.

  5. geekymom says:

    I, too, was a bit annoyed by the personal Port Clinton story. First, I felt it was very “white guy” and midwest. I think what the black woman said in her story about his past wasn’t her past, nor was her present his present was very telling, and echoed my feelings about his story of Port Clinton. I thought he idealized the 1950s and 60s in the same way that many baby boomers do. There was no idyllic past where neighbors all knew each other and took care of each other. Neighbors took care of neighbors who were like them, but otherwise, you’re on your own.

    I don’t deny the reality of the present in Port Clinton, but when I think about the town I grew up in, a small industrial town in the south, I see parallels but not entirely. My town is around 70k. That means there are enough people to reframe the economy when the industries dry up. There is still equality of opportunity in my town. In fact, they’ve built two new community college branches, one downtown that’s focused on tech and business, sort of one-off career advancement training, and one larger branch further out that’s more broad. The health-care industry there is booming as the population ages, which ironically is bringing more young people back to town. At any rate, I’d love to dig into that data more and see if my sense is correct. Port Clinton has the double-whammy of a tiny population and a dead industrial base. I wonder if the same issue holds in larger cities or urban areas, but that the causes are different.

    I’m going to try to keep my annoyance in check, but he didn’t get off on a good foot with me. Chapter 2 this weekend!

    • I agree about the nostalgia, Geekymom. As a genxer I am automatically suspicious of boomers’ fond memories.

      Great point about the city/town scale issue. I wonder if Port Clinton is just a little too far from nearby cities to draw on their resurces.

    • ” There was no idyllic past where neighbors all knew each other and took care of each other. Neighbors took care of neighbors who were like them, but otherwise, you’re on your own.”

      This is an important distinction. I winced about the teacher/coach behavior in particular. It seems as if those figures had been more supportive, more nurturing, the high school years would have been easier for Jesse and Cheryl.

  6. Joe Murphy says:

    So here’s a question – is it possible that the Port Clinton part isn’t working because it just isn’t very well told? It’s not working stylistically for me, either as memoir or ethnography. As scholarship, others have commented ably on its shortcomings; as memoir, I keep remembering that I enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin’s lionization of ’50s Brooklyn much more. I hope Brett will prove to be right, but so far I’m finding the characters uncompelling.

    • Ouch, Joe. Maybe so. It reads to me like a sociologist telling a social story, so I restrain many of my lit crit impulses.

      I’m into chapter 3 now, and find the characters memorable through subsequent reference and repetition.

  7. Pingback: Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 2: “Families” | Bryan Alexander

  8. Tim Owens says:

    Finally got a chance to write up my reflections on the first chapter Put me in the camp of someone who didn’t find the anecdotes themselves problematic, but absolutely had warning flags in my head about the rose-colored lens we were viewing this from. It’s difficult for me having not lived through that era to properly evaluate the truth of this account and how it relates to larger national and global trends though so it’s interesting to hear other experiences.

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  10. An interesting connection to the rose-colored portrayal of the 1950s and 1960s is another book I just finished – Spinster by Kate Bolick. She speaks to the negative framing we currently have of single women, and how that is largely influenced by the baby boomer generation. Something about how we can only hold 1-2 generations in mind when making assumptions, and if you look BEFORE those decades, society was a bit more varied in expectation of female roles. Just an interesting sidenote, and I wonder how far back we should be going when we look at societal change.

    • That’s a fascinating connection, Jenny. I don’t think single adults without children factor much into this book, which is a blind spot. Especially given your other comment about adults helping kids.

  11. I am just now leaving chapter 1, but have one more concern to raise over the methods he will be employing. He acknowledges that in order to simplify data, he represent groups of people by education level and maybe sometimes a hybrid socioeconomic formula. Because of this, he will not be able to account for people like the “well-educated but poorly paid librarian” or the “barely literate billionaire.” I would like to suggest that these might be exactly the people we should be looking at as we examine the potential failings in our education system and culture.

    I’m not a poorly paid librarian as far as librarians go, but my profession typically gets paid $10-20k less a year than our faculty colleagues in other departments, even when we are considered faculty, even if we are tenure-eligible. In fact our salary data is not typically reported when “faculty salaries” are reported. Why is this related? After having personal experience with this, coupled with Putnam’s self-aware exclusion of people like me, I wonder how many times data is omitted from groups that are labeled as outliers or anomalies when those are the numbers that may matter the most when discussing the state of the world.

    • That’s a great point, Jenny. (And I know how awesome your library crew is!)
      I can’t assess just how much is left out, not being a sociologist nor having a command of these data.

      My wife made a similar complaint, noting various well-educated and un-rich (often below middle class) people we know. Heck, we didn’t really claw our way into the middle class until we were 40+ years old.

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  15. rolle says:

    What is the thesis of the books and what are some main ideas in the book?

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