Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Where Did the American Dream Go?

Robert Putnam’s portrait of today’s America is grim, bleak, depressing and demoralizing. In the good old days when he was growing up, Port Clinton, Ohio was a vibrant community where people had access to opportunity and a good life. The time was the 1950s.

Today, Putnam sees a Port Clinton divided between the rich and the rest, between the affluent and the left-behind. Over the past several decades this small American city has disintegrated.

Putnam is a Harvard professor. He wrote a wonderful sociological study called Bowling Alone. His views are always worth serious consideration, even if, as I believe, his premise, that Port Clinton, OH is a microcosm for America is flawed.

Allow Putnam to compare and contrast yesterday’s Port Clinton with today’s:

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.

One’s first thought is that Port Clinton seems to be an apt representative of the decline and fall of certain parts of the industrial Middle West. Yet, Putnam wants to see it as a microcosm for all of America. To my mind, that is one leap too far.

It would be like saying that Detroit is a microcosm for all of America.

Whether it is or is not Putnam’s intention, by nationalizing the problem he opens the door for a national solution. That means a solution imposed by the federal government.

If, as Joel Kotkin suggests, the problem is localized, cities like Port Clinton have lost out in a competitive marketplace. They need to emulate the example that is being set in other, more successful cities.

The American dream is alive and well… just not everywhere. In some of what Kotkin calls “aspirational cities” people are thriving. In other places, like Port Clinton, they are hanging on for dear life.

The American middle class is doing well in aspirational cities like Austin, TX and New Orleans, LA, followed by Houston, TX, Oklahoma City, OK and Raleigh, NC.

And if you move down the list, you find that some Midwestern cities have emerged from their funk.

Kotkin writes:

Perhaps more surprising is the high aspirational ranking of some old Rust Belt and Great Lakes cities. The middle part of the country has been losing people and jobs for half a century, but more recently several urban areas within or bordering the Midwest have established enough of an aspirational culture to reverse the pattern of out-migration and begin luring people from the coasts. These include such diverse places as No. 15, Columbus, Ohio; No. 17 Louisville, Kentucky; No. 21 Pittsburgh; and No. 23, Indianapolis.

One must say that some places have adapted to change better than others. Perhaps they have been under better and more competent management. A place like Port Clinton seems mired in the past, wallowing in nostalgia for a lost past. Putnam might be trying to console them with the thought that things are just as bad everywhere else, but such is not the case. And one does not see the value in feeding a nostalgia that has brought some parts of America to their knees.

Kotkin’s aspirational cities share many of the qualities that Putnam finds lacking in today’s Port Clinton:

People must also make tradeoffs when they decide where to locate. Some value a big house and yard, while others cannot abide a city without a decent opera or good Thai food. And those obsessed with, say, their children’s educations will clearly find a broader variety of schools and cultural institutions in San Francisco or New York than in Oklahoma City.

But for those who lack these specific demands, and for those whose priority is achieving a middle- or upper-middle-class quality of life, the less expensive, often smaller, and less congested cities seem to have the greatest appeal. This may offend the sensibilities of retro-urbanists, who tend to cluster in the great legacy cities, along with our tribes of cultural tastemakers, but the hard reality shows that, for the most part, people move to places that offer not merely the best lattes or artisanal pizzas but the great opportunity for advancement.

Strangely, Putnam sees the 1950s as a halcyon age for Port Clinton. I say that this is strange because certain political thinkers have been drumming it into our heads for these past four decades that the 1950s represent the worst about America, that they were a soul-deadening mix of conformity and prejudice. By this theory people in the 1950s were all bigoted, mindless automatons.

Putnam’s vision of Port Clinton in the 1950s shows a cohesive community, comprised of strong families where people held down good jobs and could provide for their children:

Growing up, almost all my classmates lived with two parents in homes their parents owned and in neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else’s first name. Some dads worked in the local auto-part factories or gypsum mines, while others, like my dad, were small businessmen. In that era of strong unions and full employment, few families experienced joblessness or serious economic insecurity. Very few P.C.H.S. students came from wealthy backgrounds, and those few made every effort to hide that fact.

Putnam seems to wax nostalgic for the “strong unions” but he does not mention the role that those unions might have had in chasing manufacturing jobs to other parts of the world and other regions of the country.

Those who want a revival of the union movement often point to lost communities like Port Clinton. They fail to notice that unions contributed mightily to the unreal expectations that lulled people into believing that they did not have to compete or adapt. Unions have not always been the best friends of innovation and corporate efficiency.

Putnam describes the change that befell Port Clinton:

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.

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.

Of course, Putnam is exculpating the unions by saying that they had, for two decades been offering “give backs.” He does not suggest that it might have been too little, too late.

He is also blaming Walmart for having run all of the small businesses out of town. He does not offer a view of what the absence of Walmart would do to the local quality of life.

As the social fabric has frayed and the middle class has found itself descending into poverty and anomie, a new, monied upper class has sprung up around Port Clinton.

Putnam describes the scene:

But the story of Port Clinton over the last half-century — like the history of America over these decades — is not simply about the collapse of the working class but also about the birth of a new upper class. In the last two decades, just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland. As the once thriving middle class disappeared, adjacent real estate listings in the Port Clinton News Herald advertised near-million-dollar mansions and dilapidated double-wides.

No one is going to solve these problems with nostalgia for bygone days. Kotkin offers a more positive assessment when he points out that many declining communities have re-invented themselves:

In thinking about the future, then, it is important to recall that not long ago some of the cities near the top of today’s aspirational list were facing seemingly irreversible economic decline, demographic stagnation, and even loss and deterioration of basic infrastructure. You only have to recall the dismal ’70s in Seattle, where post-Vietnam budget cuts inspired some to ask that “whoever is last to leave turn out the lights,” orHouston and Dallas–Fort Worth after the oil bust in the ’80s, when those cities were widely known for their “see through” office buildings and abandoned housing complexes.

It’s always possible that unpredictable and major shifts could topple today’s aspirational cities from the top of the list. However, given current conditions and the most likely accrual of current trends, we can expect that most of the cities at the top of the aspirational rankings will remain there for some time to come.

While Putnam seems to be suggesting that the problems of Port Clinton can be solved by income redistribution and stronger labor unions, Kotkin respects the results of competition between cities and emphasizes that some cities adapt, survive and thrive… with entrepreneurship and public policies that favor growth.


David Foster said...

When manufacturing was strong in places like Port Clinton, in the 1950s through 1970s, academics and social critics were generally VERY hostile toward what they saw as the "degrading" work done in a mass-production factory. The term "anomie," drawn from sociologist Emile Durkheim, was frequently used to describe the mentality and social climate believed to be a consequence of mass-production manufaturing work.

See my post Faux Manufacturing Nostalgia:


...for more on this theme.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, David, for reminding us of this point. And thanks too for the great post that you linked, providing more detail.

Sam L. said...

So. What it is, is, Putnam's nostalgic.

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents: I couldn't care less what "parlor Bolsheviks" (Orwell's term) think.

I was born in 1946. Pa was a bartender, Ma, a waitress. We owned a modest home in bucolic Lake Villa, IL. I got a terrific education at Grayslake HS & U of IL. Served in VN. Became a speechwriter for Pentagon.

NOBODY can convince me that times weren't better back then.

P.S. I hope my Comments here are welcome. -- Rich Lara

Stuart Schneiderman said...