In The New York Times, Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and a guy David Brooks likes to cite, looks at the fate of Port Clinton, Ohio (Putnam graduated from high school there in 1959). He sees a formerly egalitarian town now suffering economic bifurcation -- the rich people are richer, yetthere's a hell of a lot more poverty. I know, I know -- welcome to modern America. But Putnam wants to know why things changed.
You'd think this would be all he'd need to know:
The manufacturing foundation of Port Clinton's modest prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s began to tremble in the 1970s. The big Standard Products factory at the east end of town provided nearly 1,000 steady, good-paying blue-collar jobs in the 1950s, but the payroll was more than halved in the 1970s. After two more decades of layoffs and "give backs," the plant gates on Maple Street finally closed in 1993, leaving a barbed-wire-encircled ruin now graced with Environmental Protection Agency warnings of toxicity. But that was merely the most visible symbol of the town’s economic implosion.But no, this isn't just about economics, according to Putnam. Ultimately, it's about our souls.
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 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."Yes, that's right -- the villain of the peace is "we." Everyone is to blame, therefore no one in particular is to blame.
You see, there was a poor kid in Putnam's graduating class -- Putnam calls him "J" -- and he turned out just fine, with a college education, a steady job, and a good life. In part that's because the community helped him, Putnam says:
His dad, who had an eighth-grade education, worked two jobs to keep the family afloat — on the line at Port Clinton Manufacturing from 7 to 3, then at the canning factory from 3:30 to 11. Despite his 70-plus-hour workweek, J's dad made it to J's games. Unable to afford a car, J's family hitched rides with neighbors to church every week and ate a lot of hash. Despite their modest background, J's parents urged him to aim for college, and he chose the college-prep track at P.C.H.S., finishing in the top quarter of our class. His minister pointed him toward a downstate Lutheran institution and made a phone call to help find him financial aid. J graduated debt-free and continued on to seminary and a successful career as a Lutheran minister, coaching high school football on the side.Well, yeah -- neighbors can be counted on to help a poor kid when a large percentage of them have the wherewithal to do so. In the 1950s and 1960s, that wasn't a problem -- jobs were plentiful. They're not plentiful now, and that, rather that "our radically shriveled sense of 'we,'" is why "R" -- a poor resident of the town today -- is suffering a different fate:
R tells a harrowing tale of loneliness, distrust and isolation. Her parents split up when she was in preschool and her mother left her alone and hungry for days. Her dad hooked up with a woman who hit R, refused to feed her and confined R to her room with baby gates. She says her only friend was a yellow mouse who lived in her apartment. Caught trafficking drugs in high school, R spent several months in a juvenile detention center and failed out of high school, finally eking out a diploma online. Her experiences left her with a deep-seated mistrust of anyone and everyone, embodied by the scars on her arms where a boyfriend injured her in the middle of the night. R wistfully recalls her stillborn baby, born when she was 14. Since breaking up with the baby's dad, who left her for someone else, and with a second fiance, who cheated on her after his release from prison, R is currently dating an older man with two infants born to different mothers -- and, despite big dreams, she is not sure how much she should hope for.That's understandable -- she has nothing and her neighbors have nothing, or not much. Maybe the few rich elites have something, but most of the town is just scraping by. The problem isn't the lack of Leave It to Beaver neighborliness -- it's the lack of jobs.
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.But when you put it this way, social decay is everyone's fault, in an equal and undifferentiated way; the villain is that one big "we."
Sorry, but no. The people who run the economy have made it pitiless. This results from the brutal competition of capitalism that first pitted the unionized North against the "right to work" South and then pitted America against any country with dirt-cheap labor. "We," in the aggregate, aren't to blame for that. The non-rich neighbors of "R," who haven't seen their real wages go up in four decades, aren't to blame for that. They didn't create the economic system. They don't run it. The way it's run isn't their fault.