Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The American Nightmare

Book Review of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D Putnam.

James Wickham: Some social changes come with trumpets blaring, promoted by self-serving entrepreneurs, hyped by snake-oil gurus and official pundits: think for example of the claims that we now live in the “knowledge society” of a connected digital world. Others come more slowly, advancing almost imperceptibly until we suddenly realise that the world has changed, changed utterly. So it is with the transformation of the United States of America into a society more divided by social class than any other Western democracy.

This duality is the theme of new book by Robert Putnam, one of America’s leading social scientists. Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) popularised the concept of “social capital” – the extent to which we are involved in social networks. Putnam showed that social capital is crucial for our well-being, but that such connections had been declining for several decades. He has a gift for the vignette that encapsulates a whole social change: in the recent past Americans had gone bowling in groups, by 2000 they were bowling alone. That image summed up the decline of community which the book documented and sought to explain. The book was intellectually tough, based on a mass of original and very imaginative research, but it was also readable by non-social scientists. Not surprisingly Bowling Alone was one of the most influential works of social science in the new century. With Our Kids, Putnam has done it again.

There are in fact three reasons to read this book. Any one of them would be sufficient, but each is integral to the overall argument. First, Our Kids documents the breathtaking expansion of inequality in the USA and the appalling consequences this now has for American children. Social inequality is not just about the poor; it’s about the gap between the poor and the better off. On indicator after indicator, so Putnam shows, this gap has been getting bigger. Since the 1970s earnings have been falling among the least educated, while at the top incomes have been growing (especially in the current crisis); the net wealth of the poor has actually fallen, while the wealthy are wealthier, ensuring in turn that their children start their careers without debt from college fees; among poor white women, life expectancy has actually fallen.

And so it goes on. Affluent Americans and poor Americans now live in different worlds. Neighbourhoods are now more segregated by class than before: the affluent live with the affluent, often in gated communities, the poor only have other poor for neighbours. In education the classes often now attend different schools, so young people have few friends outside their own social class. Finally, the affluent increasingly marry the affluent, so families become more homogenous.

It was not always like this. Putnam starts his book with an account of Port Clinton, Ohio, the town where he grew up. Back in the 1950s Port Clinton was “a passable embodiment of the American Dream”, offering a “decent opportunity for all the kids in the town, whatever their background”. Putnam tracks down his schoolmates: the life stories of Don, Frank, Libby, Jese and Cheryl all show how in different ways those erstwhile kids could go on to comfortable and moderately successful lives. A social survey of the entire class shows that these five were indeed typical of Port Clinton, with only a weak connection between social background and subsequent educational attainment. In that small town there were some who were better off than others, but when Putnam graduated from Port Clinton High School in June 1959 all the graduates were “our kids”. By contrast, today Port Clinton 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.
National data shows that Port Clinton was not unique. In the middle of the last century social inequality in the USA was at a historical low. Indeed, from the New Deal until the 1970s economic growth meant more real earnings for almost everyone, but especially for those on lower incomes. Furthermore, new jobs were regular jobs, first in manufacturing industry and then in white collar and lower professional occupations: there were more car workers, more routine office workers, more teachers.

Since the 1970s that process has gone into reverse. If class is defined simply in terms of education, Americans today divide into roughly three groups: an “upper class” with a college degree, a “lower class” with no more than high school education and an intermediate class with some post-secondary education. Chart after chart shows a “scissors” pattern: the gap between the top third and the bottom third has been growing, and not just in terms of income. Thus lower class mothers now have their first child at a slightly younger age than they did in the 1960s, while for upper class mothers the age has increased from under twenty-five to about thirty. Lower class mothers were always more likely not to be married, but now marriage is unusual for lower class mothers and normal for upper class mothers. Most children of upper class parents live with both parents, most children of lower class parents live in single-parent families.

The same gap has emerged in terms of education. Unlike in the Port Clinton of the 1950s, school is now very different for different social classes. Nationally, nearly all children with well-off parents are involved in extra-curricular activity at school while for the children of the poor there has been a precipitous decline. A major cause of this change is the introduction of “pay-to-play” policies in more than half of American schools, a change that neatly segregates the social classes within the school. Schools in poor areas have massive disciplinary problems; schools in affluent areas do not. Going to college is more closely related to family income than before: college remains unusual for the poorest quarter of American families; it has become the norm for the richest quarter. Analysis of national data shows that now, unlike earlier, whether are not kids go to college is more determined by their social class than by their high school test scores.

The underlying cause is clear: the “deep throbbing ominous bass line has been the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper class parents”. Like most educated Europeans, my Irish students used to find it hard to believe a point reiterated by Putnam: for many Americans real earnings are now less than they were fifty years ago. For most households (as opposed to individuals) income has increased, but this is only because since the 1970s women have been entering the workforce in ever greater numbers. As Putnam says, the average worker in his home town “had not had a real rise for nearly half a century”. During that period real incomes at the top have at least doubled. Given this expanding gap, “our kids” are decreasingly “our kids”. The world of lower class Americans is a different world from the world of upper class Americans.

The second reason for reading Putnam’s book is his account of the collapse of the lower class American family. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The report documented the collapse of the conventional family and the growth of single motherhood among black Americans. It was widely labelled as “racist”. This is scarcely the only case where political correctness closed down discussion of uncomfortable issues, but it was one of the most deleterious. In the decades since that report it has become clear that the problems Moynihan identified have become worse.

However it is also clear that this is now not about race but about social class. The families of college-educated blacks now resemble those of college-educated whites: a stable partnership usually based on marriage. The families of high-school-educated blacks resemble those of high-school-educated whites: a series of temporary liaisons. Among the poor, whatever their colour, a child’s father is usually absent and indeed often in jail. The black American family of the 1960s was the canary in the cage: blacks were first affected by a social change that now affects nearly all Americans – providing they are poor.

Interwoven with the collapse of the working class family is the collapse of the neighbourhood. Echoing other researchers such as William Julius Wilson and Loic Wacquant, Putnam describes how the ghetto has become unsafe for its own inhabitants. In most poor areas in America crime and drugs are all-pervasive. These are places where nobody trusts anybody and social relationships are few and transient. The endemic and almost random violence is directed inwards – towards other inhabitants. Once again this is about class and not about race. It is all a far cry from the protective ethnic neighbourhood of a few generations ago. Putnam reports how Lisa, a young white woman in a traditionally Irish area of Philadelphia, now home-schools her daughter because “three babies in the neighbourhood have recently been hit by stray bullets”.

Just as in Putnam’s previous book the spread of bowling alone summed up the collapse of social capital, in this book the changing fortunes of the family dinner encapsulate the change in the American family. National life style survey data show that until the 1990s the incidence of family dinners was declining in all social classes, but then the scissors open: among high-school-educated parents the fall continues, but it halts and even reverses among college-educated parents. So upper class kids talk and discuss matters with their parents, but as one lower class interviewee says: “Whenever it’s time to eat, it’s whoever wants to eat.”

The seemingly trivial issue of family meals matters. Research shows that kids eating or not eating a family meal with their parents is one of the best predictors of school achievement. A family meal means a secure environment, a chance to talk and exchange ideas, a chance to grow up, a chance to be encouraged by parents. While upper class kids grow up in a neo-conservative family (“conservative” because there are two parents, “neo” because both parents are in the labour market), lower class kids grow up in what sociologist Sara McLanahan has termed “fragile families”. Today the kids who have the least economic resources have the weakest social supports.

Finally, it is worth reading Putnam’s book for the simple pleasure of reading some really exciting social research. Putnam wants to find things out, he wants to communicate his findings to us. For example, he wants to know whether the contrast between the Port Clinton in which he grew up and Port Clinton today is replicated across the USA – maybe this is just what happens in declining rust belt towns? Much of the argument therefore involves nationally representative statistics. However, the researchers also interviewed 107 young people and their parents from different types of cities. The stories not only bring the statistics to life, they highlight the totally different experiences of living in split screen America today.

So what is to be done? For Putnam it’s not just about getting families to eat dinner together again. He points out that compared to virtually every European country, America does very little to support parents. The USA has one of the lowest levels of child care enrolment in the OECD – just thirty-eight per cent of three-year-olds are in childcare, as opposed to an average of seventy per cent across the OECD. Unlike European countries, the USA provides minimal income support for parents. It would certainly be easier for poor American fathers to look after their children if they were not so often in jail – remember that the poor in the USA are about four times as likely to be in prison as similar people in Europe. And any American can demand the immediate end of “pay-to-play” in their local school.

This all feels puny compared to the magnitude of the problem. Although the book starts off discussing social inequality, by the end the issue seems to have become social mobility. Unlike many commentators, Putnam certainly does not confuse the two: he is well aware that at least in theory a highly unequal society, a society with extremes of wealth and poverty, can also be a society in which those at the bottom can climb to the top. The problem is of course that those at the top will want to pass their success on to their children, and the more unequal the society, the greater the advantages their children will have. When Putnam was growing up in Port Clinton the problem was reduced, partly because large numbers of good jobs were being created for him and his companions to occupy. Today that is no longer the case. The middle is being squeezed: when new jobs are created they are often badly paid and above all insecure. In this situation trying to increase the rate of social mobility is politically attractive, but it is probably doomed to failure.

Indeed this American obsession with social mobility is arguably part of the problem rather than part of the solution. After all, encouraging social mobility is to say that nothing can be done about your current situation – your neighbourhood, your workplace, even your family. Instead of better jobs, better housing, even better childcare for all, a few more individuals should leave. Putnam wants his readers to know “how the other half lives”, just as they would have done in Port Clinton fifty years ago. Yet unless the root causes of inequality are tackled the social classes of America will continue to grow apart. As that happens, “our kids” become more and more different from” their kids”.

Prof James Wickham is Lead Researcher of TASC's Working Conditions in Ireland Project

This article originally appeared in Dublin Review of Books

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