Whatever happened to working class families?

Whatever happened to working class families? March 24, 2015

Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis continues to get attention.  Michael Gerson has a good discussion of its impact, excerpted and linked after the jump.  The problem being documented is that whereas a new traditionalism in middle class families is paying off in stronger marriages, better parenting, and successful young people,  in the working class–white no less than black– families are in a state of collapse, with more and more people refusing to get married at all, single parenting becoming the norm, children being left to fend for themselves, and when they grow up experiencing all kinds of problems.

As Putnam documents, things didn’t used to be that way.  Lower income Americans used to have strong families.  Economic struggle is and always has been a problem, but that doesn’t account completely for the current family collapse and other dysfunctions.  Something cultural is going on.  For one thing, as we’ll be blogging about, church attendance in this demographic which wouldn’t seem to be connected to economic problems, has plummeted.

College educated kids, though exposed to postmodernist ideology and pop culture at its most destructive, seem for the most part to be turning out all right.  But the less well educated, who presumably are not being so exposed to cultural nihilism, are becoming cultural nihilists.  What do you think is going on?

From Michael Gerson, The effects of inequality on America’s kids – The Washington Post:

It is rare for a work of sociology to leave readers choking back emotion. Max Weber and Emile Durkheim were not known for writing tear-jerkers. But Robert D. Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” is sociology as story, as tragedy and as an act of social solidarity. It is the culminating work of an academic career characterized by sound judgment and bigheartedness. And the more influence this book gains, the more just and generous our country will become.

Putnam’s goal is to reveal the consequences of inequality on kids. This unfairness is rooted in various, interrelated trends: family instability, community dysfunction and the collapse of the blue-collar economy. The result is a growing, class-related gap in social capital between rich and poor.

But that really does not capture the human reality. Putnam’s case-study approach reveals something important: Children experience these broad social trends mainly as the absence of committed, trustworthy adults in their lives. . . .

These trends hit portions of the African American community earliest and hardest. But they now characterize a large portion of the working class. The outcome is a bifurcation of American life — with upper-class families often practicing a modified form of traditionalism (with two incomes and greater gender equality than in the past) and perhaps a third of Americans caught in a dysfunctional kaleidoscope of loose and temporary family arrangements. Putnam sees no tension between explanations that emphasize family structure and those that emphasize economic stress. “Poverty produces family instability,” he argues, “and family instability in turn produces poverty.”

Putnam is perhaps most controversial for asserting something that many non-social scientists find obvious: The situation for children was better in the past. His most dramatic illustration is taken from his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. Putnam describes the lost world of the 1950s, in which blue-collar jobs were plentiful, two-parent families were the norm, community institutions (from scout troops to church groups) were strong, class mixing was common and social mobility was high. (Amazingly, half of the children of high school dropouts in Port Clinton went to college.)

Then he documents the radiating effects of the collapse of the blue-collar economy: The decay of community institutions. The rapid, disorienting shift in family structures. (Port Clinton had a 9 percent rate of unwed births in 1978, which was half the national average; by 1990, it was about 40 percent, nearly twice the race-adjusted national rate.) The growing mental and geographic separation between rich and poor.


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