Robert D.Putnam (2015) Our Kids The American Dream in Crisis

our kids

It takes a certain sort of courage to say that you are wrong. Robert D Putnam thought all the hoo-ha of kids not being able to grow up and get on – the essence of the American dream, work hard, play hard and you’ll get your just rewards – was belly aching from those that had failed to thrive. In any society there are winners and losers. He was a winner. He didn’t come from a rich family, and through hard work became Malkin Professor of Public Policy, at one of the grand old dames of American education, Harvard University. The same University attended by the current United States President and his wife. Winners and losers. The hard working commoner can make it to the top of the political tree. All he or she needed was true grit.

Putnam looks backwards to the 1950s, his generation and his town Ohio, which was a bellwether of the United States. He extrapolated the narrative of winners and losers and looked at the data and he found a scissor like movement between rich and poor, not only in wealth, but in education, social and economic opportunity. A gap that did not exist in the cohort that he belonged to, a gap that he did not believe existed. The American Dream he found to be a nightmare for the majority of Americans.

Putnam tells the reader ‘class differences were not absent in Port Clinton in the 1950s’. But kids from the different social backgrounds attended the same school. Frank’s parents, for example, owned much of Port Clinton, but he went to the same school as the farmer and fishermen sons and daughters. He charts the success of the two black students, Jesse and Cheryl, who gained doctorate degrees at a time when the colour bar was at its highest. Frank was smart enough to play down the social and economic difference between him and his classmates. Indeed his father warned him when he went to a café he was to order only what his classmates ordered and could afford. The rules were different outside Ohio.

The rules are different but the pattern is the same for modern (or postmodern) industrial nations. Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century charts how as economic growth slows money flows at an increasing rate from the poor to the rich. In Britain, for example, the top 20% own an estimated 100 times more than the other 80%, even before the planned £12 billion of austerity cuts scythes its way through the economic system, increasing the gap even further. Data released a few weeks ago by OECD shows inequality in the UK growing even faster and further. But there is also a gap opening between the top 1% and those other 19% which is also increasing. The tail doesn’t wag the social and economic dog, the tip of the tail does.

Putnam’s graduation class of 1959 did well for themselves.

Humble class origins did not prevent them from using their talents and work ethic to achieve greater upward mobility.

Half of his class went off to college. Race was an issue, but in a climate of greater job instability and declining relative earnings that have fallen in real terms since the 1970s for those outside the top tier, being rich or poor is all about class. A class, an untermensch, in which divorce rates have steadily increased, non-marital births have increased and the number of ‘fragile families’ with absent fathers in prison have grown, as have the number living in child poverty, increasing from just under 10%  of American children in 1999 to 40% in 2013. The mark of a ‘fragile family’ is the rigid boundary of the neighbourhood where they live and where they are educated. The mixing of different social classes that Putnam fondly remembers from the 1950s is, like the Waltons, and John Boy, from a different black-and-white era in which having the right colour of skin was a passport to more.

In a more-it-ocracy those that have the best homes, the best education, the best health prospect and the most political power, demand increasingly more. And they get it. One mother for example demanded her daughter get a school prize, misguidedly awarded by teachers to another pupil, or she’d go to her friends the school governors. Her daughter deserved it. She got it.  The scissor gap between those in the high-income bracket gaining a college degree cuts the tie between rich and poor in terms of opportunity and social mobility and shows a steady upward progression from under 40% in 1970 to 80% in 2011. Those in the low-income bracket also shows a progression for those in the third-quartile (poorish) income group from just under 15% to 23%. For those in the bottom quartile its stasis. 10% to 12 or 13%. Putnam defines education as social and economic success. Those with a college education are more likely to have better jobs, better housing and be more likely to be in a stable marriage. It’s a two-income virtuous circle in which their children reap the benefits of prosperity.

Poverty is marked in other ways. Verbal interactions for example. Children of professionals with an upper-class dual income are richer in verbal encouragements and the words they are exposed to 166 000 by the time they start school, in comparison  – I’ll beat the hell out of you if you don’t stop that now – non-professional children’s exposure to 26 000 words. The patterning and division of class begins before children begin kindergarten. Children are marked out to fail even before they begin school. But those that are poor and show a greater aptitude in tests to succeed than their rich counterparts are far less likely to go onto to get a college degree. Wealth is a physical marker and guarantor of social and economic success.

Richer kids are less likely to drink or take drugs. Less likely to have been in a serious fight. Less likely to have had premarital sex (I guess that goes down as a negative, but not at my school). Less likely to be suspended from school. Stop the world. Poor kids need to get off. In a decade of zero growth and declining wages poor kids are screwed in every way.

Putnam suggests,

If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children is not good.

The prognosis for British children follows the American pattern. Those with the least social and economic capital do the least well. The only growth is in unequal opportunity.   Nobel Laureate economist James Hackman estimates that the opportunity cost of writing off our youth costs the economy around 6% to 10% GDP. Nobel economist Joe Stiglitz calls The Great Divide ‘immoral’ and counterproductive. But investment is a dirty word. More and greater austerity is called for in a failed economic experiment. Class disparities accumulate. In a tick-box society the answer is quite simple. Don’t have children unless your income is at least three times the median income. Both in absolute and in relative terms – we’re fucked.

Jill Bialosky (2015 [2012]) History Of A Suicide my sister’s unfinished life.

history of a suicide

This book left me cold. I read an extract of the story of these sisters in The Observer a while back, one living and the other dead. I was intrigued.  I know what I’m supposed to feel. What I’m supposed to say. But it feels a bit like someone leaning over the garden fence and saying yada, yada, yada and I’m saying yeh, yeh, yeh. That’s true. You’re right. I wish I’d thought of that.

In the first act of J.B.Priestley’s An Inspector Calls stasis is undermined in this interchange:

GERALD [laughs]: You seem to be a nice well-behaved family –

BIRLING: We think we are –

In sum, we have the Anna Karenina principle. All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. In ‘Opening Words’, each chapter is Bialosky’s book are bite sized, she draws her family in Cleveland in 1970 for the reader. Kim, who commits suicide is the youngest. Laura, Cindy and the author Jill are more than a decade older than their sister. Their father, a Jewish immigrant died when they were infants and their mother re-married an Irish Catholic. Kim father didn’t last. He’s the villain of the piece who left them in relative poverty, and also left their mother for another woman. Kim was lost baggage, left behind, but with her mother and three surrogate mothers in her elder sisters. She lacked a father figure to nurture her. It belittled her. Set her back in  ways that didn’t affect her sisters. I’m not sure why.  That’s one of the arguments the book makes. Jill finds confirmation in Dr Sheidman prognosis, an amateur Herman Melville fan and eminent sucidiologist who quotes Moby Dick to her:

There is no unretracing progress in this life…we do not advance through fixed gradations. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.

As the Inspector says:

what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.

I don’t have a problem with eternal ifs. Temporality, is always dateable. Jonathan Lear, in Radical Hope, quotes Heidegger – a time when. A time when Kim made her last phone call to her sister Jill. A time when Jill lost her baby in the first trimester. A time when Jill lost her second baby, snatched away from life. A time when Kim, with her mum sleeping upstairs,  shuts the garage door and starts the car engine. A time when the boy that’s being paid twenty dollars to cut the grass hears the car engine idling and opens the garage door to carbon monoxide. A time when two police officers stand at the foot of her mother’s bed and tell her there’s no hope. Her youngest daughter is dead.

I don’t have a problem with no hope and its causal link to suicide or even references to Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, William Styron and Darkness Visible. It seems rather obvious. Those without hope seek a way out. Life gets in the way. But what I found myself doing was saying no.

Jill, for example, says, ‘I should have told her that I once loved a boy, too.’ She has an annoying habit of making statements like that and interjecting drama with the added clause, ‘too’. That would have saved her Inspector?

In ‘Last Dance’ as author she constructs a narrative. ‘In my mind’s eye…Kim…Dabbed her eyes with musk. Wore her favourite jeans and a sexy black top, convinced she would see Alan’.

Alan was Kim’s on-off boyfriend. He also killed himself. It’s part of the narrative, his death and her death. Romeo and Juliet. But I don’t buy it. It’s too pat. Life’s too messy.

‘But he wasn’t there. Not him. Not anyone. Longing consumed her.’ I find that very Mills and Boons.

‘Maybe someone leaned over the bar to talk to her.’ Maybe they didn’t, I interject.

‘Hey, you look cute. Wanna do a line in the bathroom?’

If an Inspector called how many suspects would he find with such bland conjecture? For every ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’ I overwrite with maybe not. When history become a made-up story then is it history? Or something else? I’m unconvinced. Life is for the living. Perhaps that is the lesson of the Jewish Shiva mourning period. Perhaps that is the lesson of religion. I’m not sure. I’m never sure. Not in the grief-stricken way that Jill Bialosky is. I’m not sure. Not sure.

1864 BBC 4 iPlayer.

battle of dybbol

1864 BBC 4 iPlayer.

The Germans always win. I’ve spent eight hours on a Saturday night watching the clock wind down – and you got it, the Germans won. They won so decisively against the Danes that their king, in defeat, tried to join the German Confederation. The Machiavellian Bismark joked with his Emperor that they didn’t speak German, and anyway the Danes were a sour lot and soon they’d been turning their defeat into a kind of victory. But this is to jump the gun.

In the first episode the Laust and Peter’s father returns to South Funen to work the land. It’s 1851 and although he’s been injured in the three-year war against Prussia who had attempted to annex Schleswig into their nation, but had been unsuccessful. The Danes had been the victors sowing the seeds of nationalism and jingoism that were to grow arms and legs later. Into the closed world of peasants and aristocracy comes Inge, daughter of the estate manager, who runs the land holdings for the baron up at the big house. Inge is a tomboy, Adam and Eve, and the catalyst for change. Didrich, the baron’s son, has also returned from the war against Prussia, an officer, but not a gentleman, his rank has outfaced his cowardice and disgrace. His frog-like face arrogant manner and his attempts to seduce Inge whilst she is still a girl identifies him as the baddie.

War, of course, is the real villain. 1864 is narrated through Inge’s dairy. She tells of her great love for Laust and Peter, and equally them for her. She exchanges heated kisses with both, but with the former she had a bastard child.

The modern back-story is told by Claudia, an outsider like Inge, who refuses to play the game and conform, whose brother a soldier has been killed in another pointless war in Afghanistan. Severin, the old man she tries to take nurse and take care of in the big dilapidated house that was once the Funen estate, loved Inge and wants to re-hear the story of that time. Claudia finds through the narrative that they are related. She has inherited the gypsy blood of Sofia, who was raped by Didrich and had a son Peter, the same name as her great, great, great, grandfather and one of the two great loves of Inge’s life.

The road to war is marked by Macbeth, or more precisely Lady Macbeth played by the acclaimed theatre actress of the time, Johan Louise Heidrich, swapping blood-red hands with the future Prime Minster Monrad. The declaration of war against Prussia, when it comes, is celebrated across Denmark. Laust and Peter are swept away and forced to enlist. Didrich tries to winkle his way out of it, but he too is caught in the jingoistic net. All from Funen are sure to meet up again.  It’s all about honour or such naff notions of nations that has modern resonance.

As Auden put it “When Statesman Gravelly Say, ‘we must be relistic’./ The chances are that they’re weak, and therefore, pacifistic,/ But when they speak of Principles, look out, perhaps/ Their generals are already pouring over the maps.”

The principle here is that the citizens of Schleswig should speak Danish, should be Danish, even though they speak German. The great bulwark against German expansionism at Dannevirk cannot be breached, will not be breached. It is abandoned by the Danish generals as indefensible.

Monrad and the king demand a greater sacrifice of the young. Dybbol with its connotations of damnation cannot be breached, will not be breached. It’s 1864 and we know the denouement will be bloody as Jaws after a shipwreck.

One of the great characters in this is Johan. He has seen the first war against the Prussians and is involved in the second war against the German Confederation.  He can see so much more, what will happen in the future. A messianic wanderer that has attached himself to Laust and Peter and their colleague’s wellbeing. Johan can kill or cure, but even with his foresight, he cannot save the unsaveable Laust from the wandering soldier that will ultimately kill him.

Didrich, of course, survives. His lies live on and he marries his great love Inge, telling her the Laust and Peter are dead. Peter returns from the grave and claims little Laust from the orphanage where he has been held in an act of spite.

I love Danish drama such as this. This is the bones. Put the flesh on it and watch it yourself. What’s eight-hours in your life?

Demetiaville, Channel 4, 9pm


This is a series produced with the help of the Open University. One in three of us will suffer from dementia. As we get older, and we’re an aging population, the chance of getting dementia increases. But this series is not about how we get the disease, it’s about treatment as there is no cure. Like many others I can speak with some experience, my mum had dementia. I loved her, but it was a good day when she died. I couldn’t fault the treatment she received at Boquanran House in Clydebank. But I’m cynical. I know how institutions work. I watch programmes like this and the staff are lovely. The residents of Poppy Lodge seem happy. Everything’s hunky-dory.

It’s all about taking the residents back to a time which makes sense to them. The present is not past. Les, aged 91, for example, wanders about the corridors of Poppy Lodge. He is looking for his dad that died in 1971. He started as a boy working in a car factory that built Riley cars. His dad was a gaffer at the factory and got him a job on the production line. Les gets to go on a ride in an old Riley car with his son and carer. John, another resident, was a medic in the navy. He has a particularly virulent form of dementia Picks’ disease that can affect people as young as thirty. The viewer is shown Craig, his carer, looking it up on the internet. ‘There’s no cure,’ he says morbidly to the camera. He’s performing. Aping surprise and sadness at the same time. Having a film crew following you about means the likelihood of behaving in ways that are not acceptable are as remote as welcome mat for refugees. John worked with rescue helicopters. Craig takes him to places where he can make connections. John seems happy enough on the move. A choir is brought into the home and John sits and listens to songs he seems to recognise. Lovely.

Let’s turn the page. In Holland they create villages like Poppy Lodge. Residents can go shopping and ‘buy’ twenty cartons of ice cream, for example, from ‘the local shop’ which, later, is quietly put back in the freezer. The question isn’t how far we got to help those with dementia, the question is how much does it cost? I’d love to think my relations or myself would be cared for in a place like Poppy Lodge with a film crew following behind the back of every carer. But as I’m poor I envisage somewhere a lot cheaper that smells of piss. That’ll be the reality for most folk. I’m a cynic. I hope I’m proved wrong. But we live in a society in which the rich are leaving the mess they create behind. They’ll be alright. Can you say the same?

Why do we do this to ourselves?

anthony homeless

Martin Reed, BBC 3 9pm, Where Am I Sleeping Tonight?

Martin Reed found himself homeless as sixteen and was forced to live on the streets. He knows what it’s like. He meets other kids living on the streets, kids like him. Kids like me. I slept outside for a few nights. Crawled into bushes to bed down. Slept in doorways on cardboard, or the entrance to tube stations with tens of others. Got a carton of soup from the Sally Army.  But that was through choice. I always had a home. When I’m out walking beside the canal there’s a one-man tent squirreled in on the embankment near Radio Clyde buildings. It’s been there for months. A fragile thing. Then we had a welfare-safety net. Now we have the hidden homeless –those that are registered – growing at around ten percent per year.

What we see here is sadness best expressed by Vikram Seth’s poem All You Who Sleep Tonight.

All you who sleep tonight

Far from the ones you love

No hand to left or right,

And emptiness above—

Know that you aren’t alone.

The whole world shares your fears,

Some for two nights or one,

And some for all their years.

What we have here is the empty promises of Tory reforms. Anthony is the star of the show. The camera loves him. He has been in local-authority care, care homes, foster care. He looks and acts like a child. He’s seventeen and looks about fourteen. He isn’t technically homeless as he had, or has a hostel place, but he finds it safer living on the streets. Brad has a bust up with his mum. He hopes to get a college place. We see him losing out on the free sandwiches being handed out by volunteers. He’s philosophical. He’ll go hungry. Maybe tomorrow. Brad is friendly with Anthony. Most of those living on the street are. He shouldn’t be there, but is. They look out for him. Gary, twenty-six, lost his job and lost his home. But he’s lucky. He’s depressed enough to get £20 a week sickness benefit. The others are registered unemployed but are routinely sanctioned for offences like not turning up at the appointed time, or not applying for enough jobs online. This should be a Monty Python sketch, but it’s a lived reality.

David Cameron has all the answers. New legislation on those out of work for the under twenty-fives will limit benefits to six months with a compulsory element such as community service. It’s an offence to be poor. An offence to be young. An offence to be homeless. With the fight against austerity ongoing make no mistake this will be extended to those over twenty-five. Right-wing ideology in action. Pastor Martin Neimollor died in 1984, but his thought live on.

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a communist.

Then they came for Trade Unionists

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Trade Unionist

Then they came for me –

And there was no one left

to speak out for me.

There was a happy ending of sorts. Daisy aged twenty had dropped out of university and had nowhere to stay. She’d been couch-surfing. Sleeping wherever the friend of a friend would let her. She’d even got a job at one point, in a pub. Zero-hour contract. Young people’s wages have dropped by around 13% since 2009. She couldn’t quite work out what she was getting paid. But she went looking for a flat-share. It was quite reasonable, but needed a deposit and a job that paid reasonable wages. She was sacked. Or her zero-hour contract added up to zero. But the boy’s, her fellow students, came through. They put a mattress under the stairs and put a curtain up. Pasted little stars on the slanting roof above her make-shift home. That’s as good as it gets.

God help the young. Oktay Rifat, The Embrace, sums up the degradation of hope in experience.

Warm me the night,

O my trust in freedom

against my mattress thin and blanket torn

Out there is unimaginable cold and wind…

We’ve arrived at this place where children live on the streets and adults source food banks for their family. Great Britain. Aye right!