TOPICS > Economy > Making Sen$e

What’s splitting a new generation of haves and have-nots

March 19, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Political scientist Robert Putnam grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, a town where, he says, both rich and poor children grew up together and had bright opportunities. But in the past few decades, social mobility has declined and the haves and have-nots have become increasingly segregated. Economics correspondent Paul Solman offers a look at what drove Putnam to write his new book, “Our Kids.”

GWEN IFILL: That Chicago mayoral race shows just how questions of equality, class and socioeconomics can play out in politics. This next story takes an even longer view at social mobility and opportunity, and how it’s changing the way we raise our children.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story, part of our ongoing reporting, Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

DAVE BRICKNER: I am a little strong here, and I’m going to need a little elbow room.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dave Brickner, currently ranked 31st worldwide in the video golf betting game “Golden Tee.”


Brickner owns and runs this bar in Port Clinton, Ohio, to supplement his first job doing maintenance on Wendy’s restaurants in the northwest part of the state.

DAVE BRICKNER: I’m working two jobs to make ends meet.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jim Cornell is a carpenter.

JIM CORNELL: There’s only part-time jobs for most people around here.

DAVE BRICKNER: The haves and have-nots is — you’re definitely seeing it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rust Belt decline, growing inequality, a familiar tale, perhaps, but one getting a new twist from Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who grew up in Port Clinton, returned after decades away and was stunned by what he saw: the death of social mobility.

“My hometown was, in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American dream,” he writes in his new book, “Our Kids,” “a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background,” including those who lived on the wrong side of the tracks.

ROBERT PUTNAM, Author, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”: The kids who lived here when I was growing up were poor, but they played with all the other kids in town.

PAUL SOLMAN: Half-a-century later, however:

ROBERT PUTNAM: The poor kids who live here now are living in a completely different universe from the rest of the kids in town. And that’s leading us down the road toward a — frankly, a caste society.

PAUL SOLMAN: Putnam recalls the Port Clinton of his youth as — quote — “a pleasant, friendly town of mostly white people,” its Lake Erie shorefront dotted with small cottages and modest resorts. The downtown shops thrived on the growing paychecks of the locals, many of whom worked at factories like Standard Products, which provided 1,000 good blue-collar jobs.

But then the layoffs began, and Standard Products was down to fewer than 500 jobs in the 1970s, closed in the ’90s. It’s now a hazardous waste site.

ROBERT SNIVELY: Standard Products, they closed down. I worked there. Silgan Plastics, they closed. I worked there like nine years.

PAUL SOLMAN: Today, Robert Snively gets by on seasonal landscaping work, with jobless benefits and food stamps in the winter, supplemented by visits to the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry. Ann Heckerd managed to retire from her factory job before her plant shut down, now runs this food distribution center for those on unemployment insurance and disability.

ANN HECKERD: We have 100 to 115 families every two weeks, usually more at the end of the month. The jobs just aren’t there.

PAUL SOLMAN: Neither is the pay. The average worker in Ottawa County, where Port Clinton is located, earns 16 percent less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than his or her counterpart in the early 1970s. In the last decade alone, child poverty in Port Clinton has quadrupled from 10 percent to nearly 40 percent.

And those are averages in a city where you pass trailer parks on the way to luxury developments of multimillion-dollar homes.

CHRIS GALVIN, Area Director, United Way in Ottawa County: We’re in the Catawba Cliffs. It’s a private community on Lake Erie.

PAUL SOLMAN: Chris Galvin is head of the local United Way.

CHRIS GALVIN: But it’s still all the same zip code; 43452 is Port Clinton.

ROBERT PUTNAM: This wasn’t a high-rent district when I was growing up. But, of course, now in the last 25 years, this has been taken over by huge mansions all along here. You can see in the parking lot of the Port Clinton High School BMWs that are driven to school by kids who live out here.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Robert Putnam’s day, everyone hung out together at Tony’s Snack Bar, now the Ala Carte. The future was bright for the members of the class of ’59, regardless of their socioeconomic background, be they the rich Ray Lambert, known as Casey, or Virginia Park, who was poor.

VIRGINIA PARK: I grew up on a farm, and I was one of 10 children. So our economic status would have been much lower than Casey’s and probably considerably lower than Bob’s as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you didn’t feel that difference?

VIRGINIA PARK: No, not much. I didn’t know until I was a senior in high school that his family were the wealthiest people in Port Clinton.

RAY “CASEY” LAMBERT: News to me. I didn’t know that.


PAUL SOLMAN: But you knew you were better off than other kids?

RAY “CASEY” LAMBERT: No. I had the same allowance as all my friends.

PAUL SOLMAN: And when you’re thinking about somebody like Ginny, you don’t even know how much money she has or doesn’t have.

RAY “CASEY” LAMBERT: No, it’s not important. Why would it matter?

ROBERT PUTNAM: Those economic things — I know this sounds crazy nowadays, but those economic things were not at all visible to us kids.

PAUL SOLMAN: But your parents both had graduate degrees, right?

ROBERT PUTNAM: My dad had a graduate degree. My mom got a college degree while we were in high school.

VIRGINIA PARK: My parents both had an education that ended in their sophomore years in high school.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ginny Park won a scholarship to college, has held an elected county office for 25 years here. Her rise, says Putnam, is typical of his classmates.

ROBERT PUTNAM: Eighty percent of the kids in my class here went beyond their parents’ education. So, this was a period of enormous upward mobility here in Port Clinton.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, if you’re wondering why we’re suddenly in a bowling alley, it’s because of a famous article Bob Putnam wrote 20 years ago, later turned into a book: “Bowling Alone.” That’s Putnam and his eighth grade team on the back cover, racially, socially, economically diverse.

ROBERT PUTNAM: Bowling is big in America. More Americans bowl than vote, so it’s a big deal. But bowling in leagues, bowling in teams declined by about 80 percent over those ensuing years. And what that was a symbol was the fact that we were no longer connecting with other people, the way once we did.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that loss of community, or what he calls social capital, says Putnam, is both a cause and a consequence of today’s growing economic divide.

ROBERT PUTNAM: America is silently, but really importantly, becoming increasingly segregated by how much you earn and how much education you have.

PAUL SOLMAN: Putnam is careful not to sugarcoat the 1950s.

ROBERT PUTNAM: There were serious problems of racism and of sexism and homophobia, of course. But the American dream sort of existed here, that is, the chance that everybody would do better than their parents and poor kids wouldn’t be disadvantaged.

PAUL SOLMAN: And today? And, today, what would happen?

ROBERT PUTNAM: Well, it’s no longer the American dream. It’s a split-screen nightmare, because kids who are coming from well-off backgrounds, well-educated backgrounds, like my grandchildren, are doing better and better. They’re doing better in school; they’re doing — they’re more likely to take part in extracurricular activities; they have higher test scores; whereas kids coming from lower and less educated homes are doing worse and worse.

PAUL SOLMAN: As a final illustration, Putnam and the United Way’s Chris Galvin had put us in touch with two of those poor kids. One, a young man, canceled our 5:00 p.m. appointment because he got a snowplowing job. He rescheduled for the following morning, but failed to show.

The other, a young single mother, was supposed to bring her children to this art event, organized in part to bring rich and poor kids together. She too was a no-show. It’s a problem Bob Putnam faced while doing research nationwide for the book.

ROBERT PUTNAM: The poor kids often stood us up. And what we began to realize is, that’s their life. They don’t have cars, so they’re dependent upon public transportation. If the buses don’t run, they can’t get there. If the boss calls at the last minute and says, you have got to work an extra shift, they have got to work an extra shift, so they can’t go there.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so, says Putnam, the chaos of poverty feeds on itself, and today’s poor, unlike those of Port Clinton in the 1950s, and of pretty much every other place in America, are increasingly out of sight, out of mind, and out of luck.

MAN: I missed it.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour from Port Clinton, Ohio.