Apropos this year’s FPR Conference comes this Times story from Robert Putnam, who laments the decline of his hometown of Port Clinton, OH. The weakening of unions, vacating of the manufacturing centers, and fraying of families have all led, in his estimation, to a variety of social pathologies that now make the Port Clinton of his youth a past dream. In his assessment, the economic conditions led to changes in the social conditions:
The social impact of those economic hammer blows was initially cushioned by the family and community bonds that had been so strong in my youth. But as successive graduating P.C.H.S. classes entered an ever worsening local economy, the social fabric of the 1950s and 1960s was gradually shredded. Juvenile-delinquency rates began to skyrocket in the 1980s and were triple the national average by 2010. Not surprisingly, given falling wages and loosening norms, single-parent households in Ottawa County doubled from 10 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2010, while the divorce rate more than quadrupled. In Port Clinton itself, the epicenter of the local economic collapse in the 1980s, the rate of births out of wedlock quadrupled between 1978 and 1990, topping out at about 40 percent, nearly twice the race-adjusted national average (itself rising rapidly).
One interesting element of the story is how many students who went to college (although he’s purely anecdotal here with no data) did so on the largesse of local scholarships. But, like Putnam, none of them seem to have gratefully returned home after receipt. Education became a way out more than a way up, as Berry would say. Did Putnam ever consider that accepting all those local scholarships and then never returning may have contributed to Port Clinton’s problems? In the main, however, Port Clinton is held as a mirror to an increasingly stratified and inequitable America:
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.
This is a different way to read the 50’s than that we are used to: the 50’s as an egalitarian wonderland bound together by tightly knit families and large-scale manufacturing. The ultimate cause, and thus solution, according to Putnam, is a general sense of togetherness.
But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” 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.
While there is much to admire in his story, I am skeptical of the way he presents 1950’s era Port Clinton, and even more skeptical of the claim that the solution for local communities such as Port Clinton rests in an expansive identification of every child in America as one of our own. I regard such sentimentalism as an abstraction that, practically speaking, can only result in an expansion of government power, for I can not treat as my own a kid I don’t even know. For that matter, I’m not likely to treat kids I do know as one of my own. It turns out I have a fairly primordial preference for my own children. Putnam, like so many others, is unable to break out of the Progressive dream of an imaginative “we” that collects us into one large and undifferentiated community, nor is he able to see how that experiment itself has led directly to the sorts of problems he decries. I think this article is a useful description of some things, but in analysis of both causes and solutions, I find it wanting.