Facing Crisis Without Imagination

Isaiah Berg:

If there was a phrase that captured the state of many children and families in post-war middle America, it would probably be, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” If there was a phrase to capture the state of many children and families today, it would be “We were poor, and we could never forget it.” Robert Putnam, in his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, chronicles the changes in America’s culture and economy since the mid-20th century. Putnam seeks to show through vivid ethnography and weighty social science data the ways that “our kids” — the children that are the substance of our families’ hopes and nation’s future —are facing a bleaker world today than their parents. The grim statistics for out-of-wedlock childbirth, educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, divorce, family instability, and economic immobility are growing ever worse for America’s poor and working-class children. Putnam sadly documents how invisible their austere prospects are to the soaring children of privilege.

Putnam begins his story in his own hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950s during his own coming of age. There the children of construction workers and secretaries and laborers and lawyers and doctors mixed unselfconsciously in their neighborhoods, churches, and extracurricular activities. Class contrasts in culture—and crucially for Putnam, in social mobility—were muted or nonexistent in that era. Nonetheless, these were not halcyon days for everyone in Port Clinton. Many women who desired professional or educational advancement were stymied by bias and the prevailing social norms of the period. For the black children of Port Clinton, Ohio was an oasis of opportunity compared to a hellish American South in the dying gasps of Jim Crow. Yet they remarked to Putnam how “Your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now.”