In a New York Times op-ed essay, “Crumbling American Dreams,” political scientist Robert Putnam (Harvard) returns to his hometown to assess the current state of America:
My hometown — Port Clinton, Ohio, population 6,050 — was in the 1950s a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike.
But a half-century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit “junkers” in which homeless classmates live. The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare. And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America.
The rest of his essay describes a familiar set piece for middle America, featuring the disintegration of manufacturing industries around his hometown that once provided sources of steady, decent-paying jobs for high school graduates. The disappearing industrial base has translated into human want and suffering on a significant scale.
My hometown, too
I’ve seen a Port Clinton-type scenario before.
My boyhood hometown of Hammond, Indiana in northwest Indiana was a busy working class and middle class city during the 1950s and 1960s. During the heart of those years, the area’s steel mills served as a reliable source of steady jobs for (mostly male) high school graduates. And thanks to high demand for steel and to collective bargaining, it was possible to raise a family on a mill worker’s wages.
But all that started to change in the mid-to-late 70s, when the number of shifts declined and layoffs increased. Also, by the early 1980s, the national economy overall was heading into a major downturn that would further smack the manufacturing sector.
I remember that time very well. In 1981 I graduated from Valparaiso University (also in NW Indiana) into a terrible recession. I had planned to take a year between college and starting law school, and I would spend that time living with my parents and doing odd jobs while filing my law school applications.
To bring in some money, I picked up shifts working as a stock clerk for the local drug store chain where I had spent my college summers. What sticks in my memory is how many of the women working there had become the main income earners for their families because their husbands had been laid off at the steel mills.
By the time I left Indiana for the New York City in 1982, the region’s steel industry was gasping for its life. As we fast forward to today, Hammond and many surrounding towns and cities continue to exist in the aftermath of the deterioration of the region’s industrial economic base.
Putnam first came to public attention with the publication of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), in which he chronicled the decline of the country’s civic, religious, and political organizations and urged the renewal of these community bonds. This has become a defining theme of his work since then.
True to his other writings, in his Times piece Putnam is hesitant to assign primary blame for the economic gulf in our communities on the basis of politics, instead suggesting that more systemic, bipartisan forces have been at play:
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.”
Behind the “split-screen American nightmare”
While I agree that responsibility for our current condition must be shared among many stakeholders, I wish that Putnam would acknowledge that powerful political and economic forces have widened the gulf between haves and have-nots, cut away the middle class, and — to use Putnam’s words — hastened the “radically shriveled sense of ‘we’.”
As I’ve written before, evidence of societal inequality keeps piling up, and the economic “recovery” has largely benefited the most fortunate. Many thoughtful commentators have argued that the U.S. has become a plutocracy, a society in which the game is rigged for, and controlled by, the wealthy and powerful — at the expense of democracy, genuine opportunity, and a compassionate safety net.
Some might suggest that “plutocracy” is over the top. After all, even the poorest Americans live under conditions that millions of people in other parts of the world would gladly accept. Furthermore, upward mobility remains within the grasp of some, despite growing obstacles.
But the gaping wealth gaps cannot be ignored. Until we aggressively address the political, economic, and social dynamics creating these societal headwinds, we’ll be seeing many more modern-day versions of Port Clinton, Ohio, and Hammond, Indiana, during the years to come.
This post was revised in July 2019.