How can we breathe life back into the American Dream?

Hectoring the poor has taken the place of inspiring all.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to move our family from our affluent neighbourhood in Brooklyn to a small, mainly working-class town in western New York. I have found that much of what has been written about the gulf between white working-class culture and that of the new upper class is true. We now live in the land of bow hunting and country music where ‘spaghetti dinners’ and 50/50 raffles help to fill the gap between what the town has and what it needs. Most of the time these differences boil down to matters of taste, but now and then I encounter things that make me sit up and take notice, like the conversation I overheard one afternoon at the nail salon.

I was sitting at the drying station with four young mothers. Each had a child in Head Start or kindergarten. All were living with the father of their child, but none was married. These facts in themselves were unremarkable. It is no secret that nearly 40 per cent of working-class kids are born outside of marriage. Cohabitation is hardly unusual in any class and, in a deindustrialised economy, it is not uncommon for women to be the main breadwinners, as these young women were. It was when they started comparing notes about household finances and the men in their lives that I started paying attention.

One explained that she paid the rent, while her boyfriend paid the utilities. ‘How do you get him to pay that much?’, exclaimed her friend, who, it turned out, was paying all the rent and utilities (though her boyfriend did occasionally babysit their son). Another complained that her child’s father was supposed to start contributing to the food bill after he paid off his car loan – but she found out he paid it off two months ago and hadn’t told her. They were clearly frustrated.

I wasn’t taken aback by the wrangling over finances – that’s common enough. No, what surprised me was the lack of any clear, common expectation of what, if anything, fathers owed their children – even when mother, father and child were living under the same roof. There was no sense of being in it together, or of a bottom-line shared responsibility for meeting their children’s needs. In short, there was no sense of family.

People disagree about the desirability of different family structures. Liberals think there is no ideal family form; conservatives generally think two-parent households are better. But across the political spectrum, there is a growing recognition that ‘brittle’ unions that have become the norm among working-class people are very hard on children. Such unions are financially volatile and they make it difficult to provide children with the sense of certainty and consistency they need to thrive.

Politcal scientist Robert D Putnam is worried about the rift between classes. He’s worried about social mobility and, most of all, he’s worried about what these cultural shifts mean for children.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is Putnam’s contribution to the ongoing discussion of inequality in America. But unlike Thomas Piketty’s data dump in Capital in the Twenty-First Century or Charles Murray’s statistical portrait of Fishtown in Coming Apart, Putnam has created a narrative: ‘Some people learn from numbers but most of us learn from stories.’ Our Kids has data, description, observations and speculation, but first and foremost, it is a story composed of a series of portraits of people in their own words, the fruit of two years of interviews with parents and young adults from different races, regions and social classes.

It is also the story of Putnam, his hometown – which he uses as a sort of baseline for social mobility and relative class harmony – and his generation. In fact, Putnam and his contemporaries were the last generation in America’s recent history to experience an advance on the previous one. What changed in the past 50 years? How did we move from a steady improvement in income and educational achievement to static or downward mobility? How has the way people live their lives changed and how have changes in families, schools and communities helped or hindered people?

This is a reasonable approach. What Our Kids does extremely well is to call attention to the terrible impact of social disintegration on working-class kids – particularly in terms of the breakdown of domestic life. Without a stable family to act as a haven from the heartless world, it is children who suffer the most. Unfortunately, Putnam has some major blindspots that undermine his efforts.

One of the most glaring problems is his understanding of deindustrialisation, which he seems to regard as something akin to a natural disaster, mentioned in passing but not a problem that needs to be acknowledged and seriously addressed. For Putnam, the trick is to focus the resources of society on the opportunity gap. Giving young people access to the better-paying jobs that exist right now would reduce the burden on the state and increase the number of people contributing to the economy. He is particularly taken with the work of James Heckman, who claims that every dollar invested in early childhood education generates a 10-fold return – based mainly on savings in social expenditure (policing, welfare, incarceration) and increased tax revenues.

This is fine, as far as it goes, but it seems unlikely that medical technicians and dental hygienists (the most well-paid jobs for graduates of community college) will be the drivers of an economic renaissance capable of producing levels of prosperity like those experienced during the postwar boom. Putnam rather staggeringly omits any reference to the debates about fracking (the bête noire of elite public opinion) and other forms of cheap energy. These, after all, are mighty forces many believe capable of entirely restructuring the American economy.

But what of people’s lives? Putnam rightly understands that we can’t reduce culture to economic circumstances. Economic hardship is highly mediated by the combination of public and private relationships that shape the way we live. The bonds of family and community can protect individuals from the impact of poverty and may even help them to overcome it. At a time when many of the community institutions through which we perpetuated our collective values and priorities are in decline (Putnam explored this in great detail in his book Bowling Alone), it is not surprising that domestic life should become his focus.

In looking at the differences in the experiences of upper- and lower-class children, Putnam discovers that the most obvious ones, apart from family structure, are the ways that rich and poor interact with their children. As a result, Putnam becomes fixated on parenting.

What he finds – unsurprisingly – is that the intensive parenting culture of the upper class appears to give their kids advantages that go beyond merely having more money: stability, higher expectations, protection, moral support, and a willingness to go the extra mile to secure better opportunities. His answer to the problem of inequality, then, is to try to create that middle-class culture for poor children though policy interventions.

There isn’t much in the way of innovation in Putnam’s policy ideas. He holds out little hope of reviving working-class marriage, but he thinks reducing the birth rate through the use of long-term contraceptives would help. He identifies America’s incarceration culture – long sentences for relatively minor crimes, with few opportunities for rehabilitation – as a barrier to forming stable families. He is also keen on early childhood education as a way of replicating the resource- and language-rich environment of the upper-class home, and he favours a variety of educational reforms and experimentation.

The problem with this – as with most policy discussions today – is that Putnam treats the working class less as people with a role in shaping their own destinies and more as a mass to be shaped or nudged in the right direction.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his discussion of parenting and child development. Putnam seems to have relied almost entirely on references supplied by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard and its affiliates. These organisations have reposed the problem of poverty as one of brain development – even to the point of inventing carefully crafted language, ‘serve and return’, for instance, to describe the interactions between children and adults.

While this approach has been successful for child advocates, it has been controversial in the scientific community because it conflates brain function and structure with behaviour, and creates the mistaken impression that the potential to learn decreases as the brain’s physiological development slows after age five. More relevant to Putnam, this neurocentric vision of childhood has been criticised for reducing children’s personhood to their brains.

The result is a highly deterministic view of parenting. Indeed, Putnam even goes as far as suggesting that upper-class kids are more successful because their parents are more likely to learn neurobiological theories of healthy brain development and put them to use in their parenting. If only working-class parents had the wherewithal to grow healthy brains in their children, social mobility could be restored. The fact that intensive parenting did not exist in the 1950s, when social mobility was at its height, ought to alert us to a basic flaw in this argument.

Our Kids is a valiant attempt to get to grips with the crisis of the American Dream. But ultimately it falls short because Putnam is so estranged from the mass of Americans that he can’t see where educated elites like himself fit into the picture.

More than once, he makes it clear that he doesn’t expect poor people to have access to his book, let alone to participate in shaping their own future. And of his hometown of Port Clinton, he writes: ‘Few of us, including me, would want to return there without major reforms.’

What kind of reforms? He doesn’t need to say because it’s obvious to his audience – namely those who, like Putnam himself, drifted away from Middle America to become a new elite. ‘Ambitious people understand’, Christopher Lasch wrote in 1994, ‘that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead. It is the price they gladly pay since they associate the idea of home with intrusive relatives and neighbours, small-minded gossip, and hidebound conventions.’

Putnam does not understand that the dissolution of America’s common culture cannot be solved by getting working-class people to adopt upper-class cultural norms. Both working-class and elite culture are negative expressions of something greater – a loss of moral direction and a new uncertainty about what we owe one another as citizens, as generations, as human beings. So, for instance, Putnam does not see that the intensive parenting he admires so much is itself an attempt to compensate for the loss of social solidarity. He is quick to dismiss its destructive side, because he associates it with children’s wellbeing, but, as the cost of higher education climbs into the hundreds of thousands, even intensive parenting will not be enough to ensure that the children of today’s elite will do as well as their parents did.

What would it take to revive the American Dream? We should start by recognising how badly today’s elite has corrupted its meaning. What was once a dream of prosperity, a promise that each person could realise their human potential regardless of their background, has gone. It has become instead a dream of getting away from the social conformity of little towns and neighbourhoods filled with the unenlightened, undereducated people who naively, as it turns out, thought of Putnam and his contemporaries as ‘our kids’.

The problem with Putnam’s top-down approach to reform is that it fails to start a conversation with people, like the mums in my local nail bar, about what they need. Top-down parenting interventions are no substitute.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D Putnam, is published by Simon & Schuster. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Shutterstock.

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