Whatever Happened to the American Dream?

21 Mar

Book Review: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam

For the past twenty years or so, Harvard professor Robert Putnam has been the most prominent scholar studying arguably the most important, and most worrisome, trends in contemporary America: the decline of civil society and the splitting of society along class lines. The point of the title, Putnam argues, is that we’ve stopped thinking of the children all around us as “our” kids; they are now just kids, and the only ones “we” own are the ones we raise ourselves. There is no shared inheritance or duty here, just each of us living out our isolated, atomized lives, caring for no more than our own progeny. For Putnam, the root of this separation in the fates of kids is not exactly income (though that is related, and very important) nor race (still a real issue, but the trends are slowly but steadily equalizing on that front). It’s parents’ education.

I buy this completely. I’ve lived it: I certainly don’t come from money, but I was fortunate to grow up in a very intellectual milieu, and my childhood, while far from idyllic in some respects, has much more in common with that of the privileged kids described in the book than those of the ones who have been left behind. These commonalities cut across race and region and parents’ professions, and they are self-reinforcing. In every case the gap between those who come from “upper-class,” backgrounds and those who do not grows more extreme, illustrated strikingly in “scissors graphs” that show two lines growing further and further apart. Neighborhood integration, most every financial measure, unmarried motherhood, single parenthood, family dinners, parenting time, school class and extracurricular offerings, college degrees, breadth and usefulness of informal networks, obesity rates, religious activity (which traditionally provides a community and a support network), voting…the list goes on and on. We’re splitting apart.

Most of the information here is not really new; the innovation comes in packaging it all together and intertwining the heaps of data with compelling stories. In each chapter, we meet children from well-off backgrounds who illustrate one particular trend (be it in family stability, parenting style, education, or community) and corresponding children with far less happy life stories. Using kids is a superb storytelling innovation, and one designed to draw out readers’ sympathy: we come to realize just how much things are stacked against the less privileged kids in the book, and how powerless we are to stop these trends (if we even accept our roles as that “we”). There is no one root cause, as everything is tied up in knots and feedback loops that are impossible to untangle. Neither the easy liberal narrative (it’s all the economy) nor the easy conservative narrative (it’s all culture and/or individual choices) hold up, though both are certainly true in places. It’s a master class in mixed-methods research for a popular audience, and most everything points toward a coming decline in social mobility: the death of the American Dream.

The book intentionally avoids blaming anyone for these trends, a choice which will no doubt frustrate some commentators, especially those on the left. The portraits of the upper-class people in the book are just as raw, and the fragility of their own lives, while better cushioned than that of some of the less privileged, is all too clear. Our Kids does propose some public policy solutions, most (but not all) trending toward the left: more mentoring, support for community colleges, parent coaching, greater maternal/paternal leave, daycare subsidies, incentives to get good teachers into bad schools, and expansion of the earned-income tax credit or similar programs. There is nothing radically new here, and most of the ideas are possible but not entirely likely in the current political climate. The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, in her wide-ranging review of the book, makes a very valid critique when she says its desire to influence policy leads an unwillingness to call out institutional factors at play.

Our Kids even includes a rather daring attempt to make a moral case for action against this widening split, citing both a mildly liberal reading of American history and scripture. I’m not sure it’s robust enough to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe it. This might just be a symptom of my own unfortunate habit of always taking everything to the most existential plane possible, but I think it reflects the ambivalent relationship many Americans have with the American Dream, even as we all claim to believe in it. The most religiously devout among us may like the general ideas, but ultimately have a different endgame in mind, and this is where their loyalties lie. Many on the left like the idea in principle, but think the concept is too deeply caught up in some of the less savory aspects of American history, and place their loyalty in other ideals or groups first. The atomized among us, worn down by the very rat race that Dream creates and tired of the shrill voices around them, don’t really care if other people have it so long as they can guarantee it for their kids. By its very nature, the American Dream makes it hard to have time to care about the fates of others.

What’s the future of the American Dream? For all its troubles I’m still a believer, and may well spend my life fighting to make sure it remains reality, since this is the language most people speak. However, we also need a clear-eyed appreciation of its limits: it will never reach everyone perfectly, proffers no salvation, has historical baggage, and the relentless pursuit it implies grinds people down. It’s a sensible organizing principle for a plural society, but it pulls that off because it’s a base common denominator, not a creed for all to share. Moreover, I’m confident that, in a worst-case scenario, I can still carve out a good life for myself even if it does fail. Instead of lamenting the past Paradise Lost of 1950s Port Clinton or even the 2000s east side of Duluth, perhaps it’s time to come up with a more crisp idea of what “we” want for our kids. The wisdom of the past can be a helpful guide, but the language of the American Dream forgets other bits of wisdom that sometimes provide a more robust idea of what the good life truly entails.

***

As longtime readers know, I think about these questions often in relation to Duluth, because I think its east-west split captures the greater societal split perfectly. And sure enough, Putnam had much the same thought: his research team interviewed people in Duluth for the book. His work on the city got some mention in an August 2013 New York Times column that I blogged about at the time, and used as a basis for some of my points about the east-west tension that will decide Duluth’s fate. Sadly, however, all the Duluth material ended up on the cutting room floor in the final edition.

I’ve contacted Putnam and friends to see if they have any more information on Duluth that I might be able to share, and will pass it along if I do hear back from them. Also, for anyone who notices that line on page 272 that mentions the pseudonymously-named “Tyler in Duluth, whose dad is a college professor and who plays string bass and now studies at a leading Ivy institution” who was interviewed but didn’t make it into the final draft of the book—Georgetown isn’t in the Ivy League, so this is not me, despite the otherwise eerie resemblance. I did reach out to “Tyler” (an acquaintance of mine) for better understanding of the research team’s methods, though, and if the research team ever gets back to me, we can find out if our suspicions about their intent were correct.

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One Response to “Whatever Happened to the American Dream?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. American Dream, American Reality | A Patient Cycle - July 15, 2015

    […] As I’ve written before, I’m both deeply committed to the Dream and an unapologetic critic of what it tries to do. My loyalty is conservative in nature: I’m unable to come up with any more plausible ordering principle for a society short of a fanciful revolution, and we all know how that worked out for those who tried it in the 20th century. It has withstood the demise of most competing ideologies, and it helps unite a giant, disparate nation. It taps into some fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and even when the revolts are abortive, its spirit can be found from Havel to Bolívar, from Tiananmen to Tahrir. […]

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