Weekend Reader: ‘Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis’
Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis is a history of the growth of inequality and the decline of social mobility as lived and witnessed by four generations of Americans.
Author Robert D. Putnam returns to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, to interview members of his 1959 high-school class, as well as the young people living there today. One interviewee says, “Your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now.” The town, presented as a childhood idyll that once boasted a strong civic sense, educational system, and robust industry, now has shuttered storefronts and a former factory that is a toxic wasteland.
So it is throughout the nation, as Putnam explains. Port Clinton’s fall into fiscal woes is representative of many towns and cities across America that have seen the collapse of manufacturing bases, lower wages, and higher poverty rates. For Putnam, the peril surrounding the American dream is due to a lack of community support and civic engagement. The book is a passionate, erudite plea for readers to recognize the responsibility we owe to the next generation. “America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids,” he writes.
You can read the introduction below. The book is available for purchase here.
My hometown was, in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background. A half century later, however, life in Port Clinton, Ohio, 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. And the story of Port Clinton turns out to be sadly typical of America. How this transformation happened, why it matters, and how we might begin to alter the cursed course of our society is the subject of this book.
The most rigorous economic and social history now available suggests that socioeconomic barriers in America (and in Port Clinton) in the 1950s were at their lowest ebb in more than a century: economic and educational expansion were high; income equality was relatively high; class segregation in neighborhoods and schools was low; class barriers to intermarriage and social intercourse were low; civic engagement and social solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.
Though small and not very diverse racially, Port Clinton in the 1950s was in all other respects a remarkably representative microcosm of America, demographically, economically, educationally, socially, and even politically. (Ottawa County, of which Port Clinton is county seat, is the bellwether county in the bellwether state of the United States—that is, the county whose election results have historically been closest to the national outcome.) The life stories of my high school classmates show that the opportunities open to Don and Libby, two poor white kids, and even to Jesse and Cheryl, two poor black kids, to rise on the basis of their own talents and energy were not so different from the opportunities open to Frank, the only real scion of privilege in our class.
No single town or city could possibly represent all of America, and Port Clinton in the 1950s was hardly paradise. As in the rest of America at the time, minorities in Port Clinton suffered serious discrimination and women were frequently marginalized, as we shall explore later in this chapter. Few of us, including me, would want to return there without major reforms. But social class was not a major constraint on opportunity. When our gaze shifts to Port Clinton in the twenty-first century, however, the opportunities facing rich kids and poor kids today—kids like Chelsea and David, whom we shall also meet in this chapter—are radically disparate.
Port Clinton today is a place of stark class divisions, where (according to school officials) wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the high school lot next to decrepit junkers that homeless classmates drive away each night to live in. The changes in Port Clinton that have led to growing numbers of kids, of all races and both genders, being denied the promise of the American Dream—changes in economic circumstance, in family structure and parenting, in schools, and in neighborhoods—are surprisingly representative of America writ large. For exploring equality of opportunity, Port Clinton in 1959 is a good time and place to begin, because it reminds us of how far we have traveled away from the American Dream.
June 1, 1959, had dawned hot and sunny, but the evening was cooler as 150 new graduates thronged down the steps of Port Clinton High School in the center of town, clutching our new diplomas, flushed with Commencement excitement, not quite ready to relinquish our childhood in this pleasant, friendly town of 6,500 (mostly white) people on the shores of Lake Erie, but confident about our future. It was, as usual, a community-wide celebration, attended by 1,150 people. Family or not, the townspeople thought of all the graduates as “our kids.”
Excerpted from Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam. Copyright © 2015 by Robert D. Putnam. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
Want more updates on great books? Sign up for our email newsletter!