Putnam’s Poignant Folly: Empathetic Blaming

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar Author, Professor

Robert Putnam graduated from high school in 1959 in the small Lake Erie town of Port Clinton, Ohio, and for his widely-praised book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis he revisits some members of his high school class to illustrate what life was like for those who grew up and started careers and families in the years 1945 to 1975 – what Putnam calls the “postwar boom” and in France is known more spectacularly as “the Glorious 30.” He very poignantly contrasts those glory years with grim portraits of life in Port Clinton today. What was once a supportive small-town warmth where standards of living were improving and opportunities were expanding for almost everybody has become a town divided between gated communities in a narrow strip along the lake and an excluded and much larger working-class community that ranges from destitution to quiet desperation.

I grew up during the same period as Putnam in a similar, if much larger, town that has experienced pretty much the same fate, though rather worse and without a lake from which to be excluded. It’s hard for folks of my generation to avoid experiencing what some contemptuously call “smokestack nostalgia,” as if what we are nostalgic for is the smokestacks and the “solid particulate matter” they emitted onto our homes, cars, and bodies.

More than a little nostalgia is justified, however, for those three decades if you focus on the right things, which Putnam usually does not. When Putnam graduated from high school in 1959, for example, real median family incomes in the U.S. had increased by more than 40% in the previous ten years and would increase by another 40% in the next ten years. Poverty was decreasing from 32% of the population in 1949 to 11% by the end of the Glorious 30 in the early 1970s. Real wages for production and nonsupervisory workers nearly doubled during the period, and the income gap between black and white families narrowed by 10 percentage points.

In contrast, by all these measures nothing has substantially improved since 1975, and much has gotten worse, much worse. “Back in the day,” for example, the top 10% got only about 1/3rd of all income, but they get one-half now, and the famous 1% got about 10% of income then, while today their share is 22%. Income taxes were steeply progressive (with top marginal rates ranging from 70% to 90% through the 1970s), and because unions were strong, the benefits of productivity growth were shared with workers, sharing that ended in the mid-1970s.

Putnam is aware of most of these numbers, and of their impact on people’s lives, as he details the disastrous decline in “upward mobility” that has put “the American Dream in crisis.” He is also aware that there are two kinds of upward mobility – the “rags-to-riches” kind that he calls relative upward mobility and the “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” kind that he calls absolute upward mobility. Both kinds are desirable and both are declining. Putnam’s folly is to focus exclusively on relative upward mobility, which leads him into discussions of working-class family forms and parenting styles as root causes of the crisis in the American Dream.

Relative upward mobility occurs when over a lifetime some people move up from a lower to a higher income class – usually measured in quintiles; because there are always five quintiles by definition, in order for some to move up, others must move down. Relative mobility is about “careers open to talent” and equal opportunities for everybody to get to the top. It is key if you want to have a meritocracy. Absolute upward mobility, on the other hand, occurs when real incomes and standards of living increase across the board for everybody (or almost everybody).

Think of the common phrase “getting ahead.” It can mean getting ahead of others (relative upward mobility) or it can mean getting ahead of where you were before regardless of whether you passed anybody in the process (absolute upward mobility). Putnam’s exclusive focus on the former leads him astray because, as he more or less inadvertently shows, absolute upward mobility is very probably a necessary condition for increasing relative upward mobility – as that’s what happened during the Glorious 30 and is not happening any longer.

By contrasting well-crafted and moving portraits of upper-middle-class and poor working-class families in Oregon, Georgia, California, and Pennsylvania, as well as in his native Ohio, Putnam is able to show the overwhelming range of disadvantages children in these poor families face.   And he is able to make a strong case for the need for public institutions (especially schools) to provide “compensatory funding” to improve these children’s chances of getting ahead. But in doing so, he not only gives up on the working-class adults he portrays (most of them in mid-life), he gently and empathetically blames them for their children’s fate.

If they would just get married before they have children, stay married, and then raise their children with the “concerted cultivation” approach middle-class parents use, they could improve their children’s chances of success. There may be a case to be made for this point of view, but Putnam undermines it by getting carried away with his middle-class paternalism, suggesting at various points that hugging their children more, having dinner together, and using time-outs instead of spanking would help to equalize poor and working-class kids’ opportunities.

By focusing on equalizing opportunities without equalizing incomes, Putnam hopes to improve poor and working-class kids’ chances of succeeding in our “knowledge economy” – which for Putnam means getting a college education and a job that requires that education. Problem is he seems to have no idea that when today’s 12-year-olds graduate from college, only 1 out of 4 jobs at best will require a bachelor’s degree. What about the other 75% who do work that needs to be done but who are paid increasingly low wages and whose jobs are more and more precarious in every way you can think of? Putnam gives them an empathetic literary hug, but otherwise is silent.

Putnam’s folly is to think that we can achieve greater equality of opportunity without addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth – that is, without drastically reforming our tax system so that investors are no longer privileged over people who work for a living, and without dramatically raising wages, especially at the lower end, regardless of how much education workers have and whether they are good, bad or mediocre parents.


This has been reposted from the Center for Working-Class Perspectives.

Jack Metzgar is the author of the recently published Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple). He is professor of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

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