Emily Badger, writing for the Washington Post, has an article entitled “The terrible loneliness of growing up poor in Robert Putnam’s America.” Putnam’s ideas – as presented – aren’t terribly shocking: children of upper class parents have a lot of advantages that children of lower class parents do not, and these trends are becoming more pronounced and locked in over the years. From the article, it sounds as if he starts the trend line from the 1950s and focuses primarily on the condition of white Americans in that era.
Half an hour into his Swarthmore lecture, Putnam winds into the voice of what an associate calls an “Old Testament prophet with charts.” He starts throwing graphs on the screen behind him that reflect national trends mirrored in Port Clinton: rising income inequality, growing class segregation, the breakdown of the working-class family.
They all look ominously similar. Each graph shows two lines diverging over the last several decades in the experiences of American kids at the top and bottom: in the share born to single mothers, in the chances that they’ll eat family dinners, in the time parents spend reading to them, in the money families invest in their clubs and lessons.
. . .
The poor children in “Our Kids” are missing so much more than material wealth. They have few mentors. They’re half as likely as wealthy kids to trust their neighbors. The schools they attend offer fewer sports, and they’re less likely to participate in after-school activities. Even their parents have smaller social networks. Their lives reflect the misfortune of the working-class adults around them, who have lost job prospects and financial stability.
More than 60 percent of children whose mothers never made it past high school will now spend at least some of their life by age 7 in a single-parent household. In the 1970s, there was virtually no difference in how much time educated and less-educated parents spent on activities like reading to infants and toddlers, which we now know matter tremendously for their brain development. Today, well-off children get 45 minutes more than poor kids every day of what Putnam calls “? ‘Goodnight Moon’ time.”
This sort of work is complemented by the work of Thomas Piketty, the French economist who has shown that, in developed countries, the rate of capital return exceeds the rate of economic growth and, consequently, we see a concentration of wealth among those who own the capital.
In simplistic terms, you don’t acquire wealth through merit so much as you acquire wealth by being in close proximity to it. Putnam wants to change the dynamic through a “won’t anyone please think of the children” appeal to strengthen our social fabric. Which isn’t awful. It’s certainly easier to sympathize with kids who are more or less innocent than with adults who have made a series of poor life choices — even if their circumstances, economic and familial, put a thumb on the scale, tipping the balance in favor of those bad choices. Americans can also always be counted upon to be nostalgic for the ideal of the 1950s when everyone (by which I mean white men) was a member of the Rotary or Masons or Moose or other civic minded organization, and kids grew up in a community with a strong sense of itself. (Putnam’s point of origin – at least rhetorically – seems to be Port Clinton, Ohio circa 1959 which is the place and time of his high school graduation.)
But, historically, what was the actual condition of the working class in, say, the 1890s or the 1910s? Were the kids of laborers in the Gilded Age looking at brighter prospects than the kids of today? I think not. If my assumption is correct, it’s worth looking at what got us from the Gilded Age to the 1950s — which was a better time for working families, even if it wasn’t quite the Leave It to Beaver ideal. Maybe I’m just in a cynical frame of mind, but my sense is that if we find one period of time with particularly concentrated wealth followed by another time of economic prosperity that reaches the middle class, in between we will find a period of calamity.
The prosperity of 1950s middle-class America was built in no small part by the draining of wealth from the upper classes, both domestically and abroad, during the World Wars. Notice how we don’t see so much in the way of landed gentry in England as we once did? Government had no choice but to extract wealth where it could be found in order to fight off the existential threat of war. High taxes on the wealthy and relatively generous benefits for the returning soldiers meant the wealth did not return all at once to the places from whence it came. So, that’s my hypothesis. I’d be interested to see examples of societies that transitioned from concentrated wealth in the upper classes to a more egalitarian sort of prosperity without some intervening awfulness. (An aside – but I also have a notion that societies with concentrated wealth trend toward more extraction of wealth from others (e.g. empire, slave owners) while societies with a more equal spread trend toward more of an organic growth of wealth model (e.g. businesses rising to meet demand — of which there is more if more people have money in their pocket.)
The beneficiaries of concentrated wealth are few in number but the rest of the population are often pitted against one another, fighting over the remainder. (Bringing to mind the Jay Gould quote I’ve probably worn out by now, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”)
From the Putnam article where he suggests solutions such as more investment in early childhood education, criminal justice reform so more low-income men can find work, religious groups taking up mentoring, and public schools ending “pay to play” fees for after school sports:
Many of these things will require money, though, and that is where the fight brews. In Port Clinton, his team interviewed one mother from the wealthy community that has grown up on the town’s lakefront, as neighborhoods just inland have collapsed into poverty. She is wary of the idea of special education funding for poor kids in town.
“If my kids are going to be successful,” she says, “I don’t think they should have to pay other people who are sitting around doing nothing for their success.”
So, are there viable, less than unpleasant solutions? From my perspective – that of a middle class white male coming from middle class, very educated parents – I don’t know. From my perspective, I earned a lot of what I have. My kids will prosper based on the work and sound choices I’ve made. In the short term, what’s the upside to me and my family for making sacrifices. Now, I can abstract myself from my own personal situation and, at a macro level, see some reasons. But personally, not really.
I studied hard as a kid. I saw a lot of kids goofing off. I even got mocked by fellow students for using big words. I’m not, therefore, naturally inclined toward sympathy for those who didn’t value education. I waited to have kids and picked a compatible spouse to marry after I was done being a kid. I’m not, therefore, naturally inclined toward sympathy for those who have the opportunity to delay being a parent or pick a compatible spouse, fail to take advantage of that opportunity, and suffer economic consequences. I work hard – I’m often the first in and last out of work, I stress over my business even when I’m not at work. I don’t smoke. I exercise. I don’t (often. anymore.) drink to excess. In short, there is some justification for the internal narrative where I worked hard and played by the rules, and I can attribute my relative prosperity to that. Not knowing nearly as much about others, I can attribute their lack of prosperity to them not working hard and playing by the rules. (The narrative about the more prosperous is a little telling — could they have worked that much harder and played by the rules that much more? Of course not. They don’t deserve *their* wealth, go ahead and take it from them if you must. Just leave me alone.)
Fortunately, I’m introspective enough to realize that narration from my perspective is limited at best, but often enough, just plain unreliable. I had opportunities not given to others. My parents valued education, so of course I did. I goofed off quite a bit. More than a little luck is involved in choosing a good spouse (particularly for those who came from unstable families). A lot of the reason I work so hard and stress about my business is because I *have* a business, and if I generate profit, I get to keep it. But relying on that level of introspection and at least a bit of short-term selflessness to create egalitarian social change seems a little too hopeful by half.
So, I think we’re going to continue seeing this concentration of wealth play out until it either causes or is the victim of the sort of calamity that leads to a shuffling of the cards. And, if you’re one of the lucky ones, maybe you can escape the calamity relatively unscathed and enjoy the benefits of a prosperous middle class and an economically secure lower class.
Michael Oxenrider says
Well said. Merit’s a tricky thing. Even the impulse you had to study harder at school, to see opportunity, and take advantage of your upbringing is some sort of hybrid self agency mixed with things you had no control over.
There’s no doubt in my mind we should be rewarded for our hard work. I just don’t like the inverse. Many make an inductive leap that those that have fallen on hard times must deserve it. Pre-industrial revolution, the poverty stricken were considered unfortunate souls. They weren’t deserving of their fate, but their was nothing really that could be done. They were born that way. It’s kind of mean, but when you stop and think about it, it’s worse to blame them. The cliché “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” used to have an entirely different meaning. It used to be representative of an impossible feat, not the idea of self-reliance. To lift yourself by your bootstraps would be to defy the laws of physics.
Christopher Hamm says
Mr Oxenrider.. Well said. I hadn’t heard it “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” put in that context before comparing to current times. Thanks for the insightful perspective.