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.




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Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. I’ve never commented here before, but have been reading the Front Porch Republic for quite some time now. I live about ten minutes away from Port Clinton and have spent a good deal of time there. There is no doubt that there is decline in Port Clinton, and also in my own hometown of Oak Harbor. I graduated high school in 2002, and most of my successful classmates have left for good. I am still pursuing graduate studies. I would like to come back, but I am afraid that there is no opportunity for me (complicated by the fact that I am studying philosophy). Still, I think Putnam is too negative in his view on Port Clinton. It is still a beautiful time with a thriving tourist industry. You wouldn’t suspect that by the pictures that the the Times chooses to complement the story. They don’t mention that the pictured school that is being demolished is being demolished to make way for a new school. I mention this because I believe there is truth in what Putnam writes, but it is not the whole truth; the truth is much more complicated than that.

  2. Mr. Polet, your point about scholarships is well taken but I think you missed Mr. Putnam’s point with regard to community. He is not suggesting you adopt his children, or even look after them. Rather, he laments the loss of “community” that, for many of us who were around during the 1950s and 60s, seemed a core American value. Is this is a generational shift? You don’t seem to recognize that your own statement that “…I have a fairly primordial preference for my own children” serves to further illustrate Mr. Putnam’s point. Isn’t it just possible that one can care about others while retaining a “primordial preference” for one’s own? Or are you that afraid of being labeled a “do-gooder” or, even worse, a liberal? Interlaced with Mr. Putnam’s observations on wealth distribution and urban flight is the suggestion that, with respect to the decline of cities like Port Clinton, something even more fundamental has been lost, and which is perhaps the glue that holds communities together: A willingness to care for one another.

  3. Matt: Welcome. Thank you for commenting. I suspect you have it right: that Port Clinton in the 50’s wasn’t as good as he makes it sound, just as it’s not as bad as he makes it sound now. It is still a place where people live and work, no?

    Mr. Norgard: I really don’t care what labels people apply to me, nor do I think I missed the point of Putnam’s claim about caring for each other. My objection is to thinking of caring in such abstract or sentimental terms, or to think that policy is a substitute for actual caring. I think there is a lot to be said for neighbors watching out for and supporting one another in the raising of each other’s children, but such support presumes a certain kind of intimacy and knowledge, and thus comes into the distinct limits imposed by scale.

  4. I happen to agree with much of Mr. Nogard’s critique–Mr. Putnam’s main thesis that our shrinking circle of ownership is a major factor in our current economic malaise. Consider the status of public education and systems of funding it. Growing up in Texas there were very few private schools and the distinction between a town and its schools was very slight. Taxpayers identified with and supported the school, with the accompanying good and bad side effects. Today privatization of K-12 education is very prevalent, using taxpayer funding. But as schools become just another commodity service to be taken from the taxpayer’s hide, the word ‘support’ has eroded to mean strictly a financial relationship. Forty years ago townsfolk talked about “our boys” on the football team, even if they had no kids or other kinship relationship to the school. Now the letters to the editor at levy time are filled with references to “other folks’ kids” costing them money.

    Generalizing, this seems a part of the larger trend of drawing in our circle of compassion. On a continuum of caring, bounded by total self-centeredness on one end and a suicidal desire to take in every stray on the other, we are moving toward the former. This is independent of the political dimension of our lives, and is more a measure of our individual outlook. I can be concerned about the welfare of people I haven’t met, without requiring that I have to adopt them, either personally or through public policy. This usually makes me a bit more open to helpful interactions with others, from small gestures of kindness at the grocery store to being more inclined to volunteer for local boards or cultural activities. These details make places more livable and give residents a sense of belonging. Economically, this makes residents more inclined to try their hand at economic ventures in their own town, makes employees more responsible to the community and more productive, and helps people through small crises without resorting to full-blown government assistance.

    Lest you think me some pie-eyed Pollyanna, let me rush to assure that I’ve also seen to downside to too much ‘ownership’ by a community. Community leaders that think they are every child’s parent and can ‘spank’ them for misbehaving, intrusive and gossipy neighbors, etc. But these problems have other solutions, and becoming isolated autonomous human units does not seem to lead to better economic engines or more fulfilled spirits.

  5. Your right. Port Clinton is still a lovely place where people live and work. I also think you are right to worry about the danger and tendency of sentimentalizing the past. We glorify the past and forget the past’s role in shaping the present. Our parents and grandparents were great people, but like us they were not perfect people. The seeds of today were sowed yesterday.

  6. The purpose of the welfare state is to destroy the person-to-person relationships of which a community is built. Back in the 60s, advocates of the welfare state were even saying so, but neither we nor they quite realized what they were saying.

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