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Robert Putnam is an important sociologist.  He was born in 1941, which makes him a bit too old to be a Baby Boomer, whereas I, born in 1946, am on the leading edge.

This past weekend he had a powerful piece in The New York Times, whose title I have borrowed here.

You may well want to read his piece online, in which case here is the link.

He focuses on Port Clinton, OH, where he grew up and attended school, and describes the differences from what people there experience now from what he and his peers had available to them.

As is true of much of the upper MidWest, it is no longer possible to have a middle class life style from manufacturing, and communities falter as the manufacturing leaves.  He describes that by talking about individuals, helping us understand through their experience.

Then there is this final paragraph, which can be understood even without detailed reading of the entire piece:  

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” Everyone in my parents’ generation thought of J as one of “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R’s existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as “our kid.” Until we treat the millions of R’s across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.
Please keep reading.

But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.”

Until we treat the millions of R’s across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.

Those two sentences jumped out at me.

Let me explain, both from my perspective as a baby boomer, and as a teacher of adolescents.

I grew up in an upper middle class household.  In fact, as I discovered when I did some googling in conjunction with going back for my 50th high school reunion, the house in which I was raised is now on the market for 7 figures (although the details on schools is somewhat askew).  We were comfortable, even before my mother returned to her profession as a lawyer when I turned 8, first part-time, then when I was 13 full-time as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State.  We could live comfortably on my Dad's income.

I had classmates who had houses that were fantastic, whose parents were very wealthy.  One of my sister's classmates had a father who was head of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  We also had classmates that were working class - one of mine had a father who was a minister and a cab-driver while her mother took in sewing, trying to make ends meet.  

There were those in our community whose kids left our cohort by 9th grade - to St. Grottlesex as the elite New England boarding schools were known, or perhaps to Horace Mann, or a few of the Catholic boys to the two Jesuit prep schools or a few more to the local catholic high school.  

Other communities nearby sent less than 50% of their students on to college in the early 1960s.  We sent over 80% of ours.   So my experience is not quite the same as Putnam's.

But many of our parents were themselves first generation to graduate from high school.  My father's father was an immigrant tailor who never had money, but saw all 6 of his kids graduate from college, six from Cornell, two of them earning Ph. D's while a 3rd (my dad) reached ABD.  It was possible to aspire, to believe that one's children would lead better lives than one had oneself.

And yes, there was a sense of community, although ours had very little manufacturing and that was small scale.  Many of the incomes came from fathers who commuted into NYC via train each workday.

It was far from idyllic, but compared to what many of the students I have taught have faced, it was a time of hope and optimism and dreams - at least for most.

I note several things about that time to which I see no reference in Putnam's piece.

1.  It was the time of the highest percentage of the workforce in unions  - even Republican presidents did not oppose unions.

2.  It was the time of the highest incremental income tax rates in our history - we understood we had to pay for the wars we had fought

3.  It was the time of commitment to public works, starting with the Interstate Highway System, but also including expansion of public higher education, building of newer schools

4.  There was, for better or worse, a military draft for fit males, one that often resulted in those who served meeting and living with those of very different backgrounds, as I experienced when I dropped out of college in 1965 and enlisted in the Marines.

5.  It was a time where our hope for better things required us to look beyond our own needs to the needs of those being excluded - we saw it in documentaries like Harvest of Shame, we experienced it on television with the events of the Civil Rights era, we saw a commitment from a President who had known poverty and taught students from poverty in the programs of the Great Society.  

That is not to say that we did not have vitriol - we certainly saw it in the events of the civil rights movement.  We also saw it in backlashes against the insistence of some younger people whether in counter-culture or in early opposition to Vietnam.

For me as a white middle class adolescent of some privilege, although still somewhat restricted by my Jewish heritage, I came to understand that we somehow needed to be committed to one another for this nation to flourish, for our society to benefit me.  That is, I could not in good conscience benefit from the misfortune of others.

Some of my friends in high school were very working class.  Some went directly to the military from high school.  Others got married as soon as they graduated.

Others of those I know have gone on to great success as measured by finances, or elite positions in government or academia or the professions.  

It was possible to go to college from a working class family and not come out bedeviled by the twin burdens of crushing debt and lack of meaningful economic opportunity.  

When our politics and our economics both rely heavily upon a divide and conquer strategy - that one cannot succeed without first crushing someone else - we no longer have a sense of commonwealth, of community, either at the level of the local community or of the nation.

I do not claim to have answers.

Nor do I presume that the world has gone only downhill since my youth and adolescence.

I can remember when cities like Detroit had vibrant public schools - I think of people I knew at Interlochen who attended Cass Tech, for example.  

But I also can remember when people were denied the right to buy a house because of their religion or the color of their skins.  I can remember my mother, a Republican party official, explaining that one reason she would vote for Jack Kennedy even though she was a Nelson Rockefeller appointee in state government, is that if a Catholic could not be elected what hope would there be for a Jew?

I have taught students with parents of different 'races" - when I was in school few of my classmates even had parents of different religions or ethnicities.  

I have taught students with two moms, and students who are out about their own sexuality - that was certainly not known in the suburban ethos in which I grew up.

When i was in high school, the police in nearby wealthy Scarsdale would stop any black adult male they encountered to inquire whose houseboy they were, because there were only two black males in the community, and one had been a boxing champion, and the presumption was any other black male was there for nefarious purposes.

Still, at least as I remember it, we expected things to get better.

Yes, there were backlashes - on race, on youth rebellion, on anti-war protests.

I will be teaching in a different environment beginning later this month.  As recently as four years ago less than half the students in this school would take SATs.  

The school from which I retired saw the vast majority of its graduates at least head to a community college immediately after high school.

But already there were doubts among my young people about their futures.

Some had seen family members lose jobs near the end of the Bush administration.

Some had lost their homes.

Increasing numbers would make their decisions about where to attend college based primarily on which would represent the least financial burden to them and their families - absent a free ride or close to it they might forego the elite private institutions in favor of public institutions in Maryland, sometimes commuting from home to save even more money.

having lived now well into my 7th decade, I have at least the advantage of experience, both direct and that which I have observed from others.  That does not necessarily give me wisdom or insight, but it does provide perspective.

My politics, such as they are, are informed by my belief in a commitment to something  beyond my own personal well- being.

After a detailed exploration of the life of one young person in his hometown which he uses to illustrate the changes over time, Putnam offers this paragraph:  

R’S story is heartbreaking. 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 but also about the birth of a new upper class. In the last two decades, just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland. As the once thriving middle class disappeared, adjacent real estate listings in the Port Clinton News Herald advertised near-million-dollar mansions and dilapidated double-wides.
Insofar as what should be the party of ordinary Americans identifies with this new upper class, insofar as it allows itself to be dependent upon monetary support from the financial sector, or from those managers who want to privatize their profits and socialize their costs, insofar as it acquiesces in privatizing the commons be it public schools or water systems or toll roads or prisons, insofar as it does not include ALL Americans in its policies, then who will speak for the ordinary American, and how can we change the current downward spiral of loss of community at both local and national levels?

This is a part of the picture.

So is the government's ability to gather and keep information on us.

So is the incremental whittling away of rights many of us assumed we had.

So is the willingness of too many to pit one group of Americans against another for their own personal political aggrandizement and financial gain.

And yet there is this - there are young people who see how things can be different, who work at change in ways that were not as possible 50 years ago.

Is there a a crumbling of the American Dream?  

There has been a deterioration, but there may also be a reshaping of what that dream can mean.

The young people I teach can help in that reshaping.

That is in large part why I teach.

That is my most important political action - to try to encourage and empower them to make the world around them better, not only for themselves but for others they may never meet.

Putnam's article bothered me when i first read it.

It also reminded me at least in part of the purpose of what I do.

So I thought to offer these words.

Make of them what you will.


Originally posted to teacherken on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 05:01 AM PDT.

Also republished by ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (16+ / 0-)

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 05:01:33 AM PDT

  •  Kropotkin said . . . (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Shockwave, TomP

    . . . "All children are 'our children'".

  •  The post-war "consumerism" employed... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, TomP, NoMoreLies

    ...a large number number of people.  But these jobs were exported to countries where factory workers were paid a pittance or in the retail end of the supply chain, workers were absorbed by Walmart to be treated as disposable parts;

    Manufacturing employment in Ottawa County plummeted from 55 percent of all jobs in 1965 to 25 percent in 1995 and kept falling. By 2012 the average worker in Ottawa County had not had a real raise for four decades and, in fact, is now paid roughly 16 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather in the early 1970s. The local population fell as P.C.H.S. graduates who could escape increasingly did. Most of the downtown shops of my youth stand empty and derelict, driven out of business by gradually shrinking paychecks and the Walmart on the outskirts of town.
    The American Dream has to mutate.

    Green energy jobs?  Infrastructure? Education?  Obama seems to say the right things but we are not getting it done in DC or most places down the line for that matter.  

    I still have some hope and I give credit to Occupy Wall Street for pinning down the key diagnostic.  In the years between described in the paragraph above, while the workers in Ottawa county were not given a raise, on the contrary they made less money, the rich got much much richer.

    Americans went to sleep and have finally woken up in a nightmare.  But i's not to late. I have hope.  I know too many good people that get it.

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 05:45:42 AM PDT

  •  Port Clinton is a Little Lakeside Town in the (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shockwave, TomP, VClib, teacherken, NoMoreLies

    Cedar Point Amusement Park region that encompasses the Bass Islands of western Lake Erie. Port Clinton is on the western side of this region.

    It's been a huge regional vacation & holiday area since forever, being within easy day travel of Cleveland, Detroit, Windsor, Indianapolis, Toledo, and such.

    Summers especially weekends the area is crawling with boaters, fishers, family campers and picnickers. We used to charter small cruising bareboat sailboats out of Port Clinton to sail over to Put-In-Bay, home of the delightfully named Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial National Monument, and on to Pelee Island Canada. As late as the 1980's there was Island Airlines which flew a fleet of ancient Ford Trimotor planes from Catawba to Put-In-Bay, and the legendar Miller ferry that sailed at about 4 knots over to Put-In-Bay.

    Everything in the region is showing signs of decay as the region's auto and other manufacturing has shrunk. Payday loan shops are everywhere, marinas for sale, boatyards with many idled sail and fishing boats.

    The geography is as beautiful as ever. I take my small trailerable sloop up there a few times a year to sail nearby Sandusky Bay.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 06:13:51 AM PDT

  •  Absolutely (6+ / 0-)

    I have been thinking along these same lines for quite a while.  Society is being systematically dismantled and stratisfied so that the haves are quite happy and the havenots are left to squabble over the leavings.  l think there are several things that have caused this problem:

    1.  Mobility of people - people moving much more often and not getting to know neighbors.  

    2.  Lack of empathy - I don't know if it is the type of programming we are subject to day in and day out on tv and in the movies - or if it is the constant bad news in the newspapers - but people have lost the ability to sympathize with others.  Even if people are sympathetic, more likely than not they are denigrated for feeling that way so they keep silent.

    3.  Jobs are mobile - people do not stay in the same company for long, the management does not feel connected to their employees - kind of the mcdonaldization of the work force.  We are all widgets and expendable.

    4.  Divide and conquer by the elites - if they keep people distracted by racism, sexism, and the polarization of society - then they keep the rest of us from focusing on the elites as the root of the problem.  

    I am sorry, my words are inadequate for the feelings I want to express.  

  •  Many of us predicted this in the 1980s (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, NoMoreLies

    when Reagan did the tax cuts and made war on workers.  And then Reagan was re-elected.   And over the last few decades the chickens came home to roost.

    Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

    by TomP on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 06:33:11 AM PDT

  •  Don't all of our ills trace back to our lack of (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomP, NoMoreLies

    investment in both education and infrastructure.  Our schools used to be the envy of the world but now it really depends where you live.  If you are lucky enough to live in an area with great schools then the American Dream is alive and well, if not you are out of luck and there is no ladder out. It has been 30 years since manufacturing left this country and we are still talking about the same issues.  We have done nothing to address the systemic change.  We still talk about the free market solving our issues.  The free market follows it does not lead.  The government leads and the free market follows to reap the profits.

    •  It's more than that. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      teacherken, Shrew in Shrewsbury

      That's part of it, but the destructions of unions and offshoring of jobs destroyed the middle class.  We can churn out millions of BAs or BSs, but where are the jobs for them.  There are fundamental problems with our system and they are not being addressed.  It is only going to get worse.    

      Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

      by TomP on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 06:50:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a few years younger -- the 60s were my (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    school years, and far less well-to-do but not poor as the sone of a single widow whose secretarial pay was augmented by military survivors' benefits.

    My growing up period was not marked by the highest marginal tax rates ever -- they were slashed by the Kennedy tax cuts.

    And -- not so sure about infrastructure, but that interstate highway system was very much a factor. I should remind you , however, that the interstate highways system was not built as a civilian infrastrucre project per se.  It was a actually a defense project.

    Still, we were able to live in a tidy brick house in Fairfax county ($19,000 when my mom bought. No idea today).
    I went to Fairfax County public schools -- which were on a par with many of the best private schools in the country.  

    Most of my friends went to college.

    I know that I graduated college in debt: I owed $700 after getting my Master's Degree.

    There are worse things in this world.

    More than anything, I remember my mother having the widest set of eyeballs you can imagine.  EVERYBODY knew who everybody else's kids were.  It wasn't that you had to fool your parents to skip out of school. You had to fool EVERYBODY. That kind of community effort was parenting force-mulitplier.  

    One story I remember -- and sorrry about this teacherken -- involved an especially vicious second grade teacher.  I had asked her if my mom could take me to the Father-Son dinner. She told me it was for fathers only.   I got very upset and got sent home from school.

    A neighbor took me to the dinner and told my teacher face-to-face when asked if he was my father, "Tonight I am".

    There are a million little ways and nearly as many big ways that "we" are stronger than "I".  Our fragmented society has lost a lot.

    LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

    by dinotrac on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 07:52:57 AM PDT

    •  follow the link to the house in which I grew up (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NoMoreLies, dinotrac

      we bought it in 1948, for around 24,000 IIRC.  When we bought a brand new Buick in 1950 we something over 2200.

      We did upgrade the house, and so have several other owners.

      Our back street (we were on a corner) became a dead-end in the mid-50s, which gave us a safe place to play in the street.

      I remember thinking yesterday when I saw two elementary age kids (older probably 9 or 10) on their bikes in mid-afternoon with no adult around.  They were riding on the sidewalk, which given the street they were on, which sees something over 10,000 vehicles daily, was probably a good idea.  But I wondered if it were safe, then remembered when I was a child we would have thought nothing of a ten-year-old riding his back 1/3 mile into the nearest shopping center.

      "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

      by teacherken on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 08:18:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  "Million-dollar mansions and dilapidated (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    double wides".  

    That is the direction this country is headed; a third world nation with a wealthy elite and a lower class in poverty, with nothing in between.  I'm 57 and am very discouraged by the destructive course the U.S. has been on for several decades.  

    One factor in our decreasing standard of living that I haven't seen mentioned is foreign competition.  The global marketplace makes things much more difficult for our manufacturers, and pushes wages down.  Regardless of that, I think the most significant damage has been done by the collusion between our government and businesses to encourage foreign outsourcing, destroy unions, and deregulate everything except womans' health clinics.

    I still have some hope for the future of the U.S., but it is going to take a significant effort to right this ship.

  •  Many thanks for this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I will read the article, but I am already pondering your own thoughts.

    The economy after the war was affected not just by unionized labor, but also by the GI Bill of Rights that allowed people to access higher education and home ownership who would not otherwise have been able to afford either. Hence the feeling of movement from one class to another being easily. Some of your classmates who went straight into the military might have taken advantage of these benefits.

    Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

    by ramara on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 12:30:59 PM PDT

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