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.