Category Archives: Reading Putnam for Lesson 5

Critical Thinking Reading for Lesson 5

Putnam, R.D. Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis



I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone.1

If I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world.

In the particular is contained the universal.2

MY HOMETOWN WAS, IN THE 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background. A half century later, however, life in Port Clinton, Ohio, is a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks. And the story of Port Clinton turns out to be sadly typical of America. How this transformation happened, why it matters, and how we might begin to alter the cursed course of our society is the subject of this book.

The most rigorous economic and social history now available suggests that socioeconomic barriers in America (and in Port Clinton) in the 1950s were at their lowest ebb in more than a century: economic and educational expansion were high; income equality was relatively high; class segregation in neighborhoods and schools was low; class barriers to intermarriage and social intercourse were low; civic engagement and social solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.

Though small and not very diverse racially, Port Clinton in the 1950s was in all other respects a remarkably representative microcosm of America, demographically, economically, educationally, socially, and even politically. (Ottawa County, of which Port Clinton is county seat, is the bellwether county in the bellwether state of the United States—that is, the county whose election results have historically been closest to the national outcome.3) The life stories of my high school classmates show that the opportunities open to Don and Libby, two poor white kids, and even to Jesse and Cheryl, two poor black kids, to rise on the basis of their own talents and energy were not so different from the opportunities open to Frank, the only real scion of privilege in our class.

No single town or city could possibly represent all of America, and Port Clinton in the 1950s was hardly paradise. As in the rest of America at the time, minorities in Port Clinton suffered serious discrimination and women were frequently marginalized, as we shall explore later in this chapter. Few of us, including me, would want to return there without major reforms. But social class was not a major constraint on opportunity.

When our gaze shifts to Port Clinton in the twenty-first century, however, the opportunities facing rich kids and poor kids today—kids like Chelsea and David, whom we shall also meet in this chapter—are radically disparate. Port Clinton today is a place of stark class divisions, where (according to school officials) wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the high school lot next to decrepit junkers that homeless classmates drive away each night to live in. The changes in Port Clinton that have led to growing numbers of kids, of all races and both genders, being denied the promise of the American Dream—changes in economic circumstance, in family structure and parenting, in schools, and in neighborhoods—are surprisingly representative of America writ large. For exploring equality of opportunity, Port Clinton in 1959 is a good time and place to begin, because it reminds us of how far we have traveled away from the American Dream.

  • •  •

June 1, 1959, had dawned hot and sunny, but the evening was cooler as 150 new graduates thronged down the steps of Port Clinton High School in the center of town, clutching our new diplomas, flushed with Commencement excitement, not quite ready to relinquish our childhood in this pleasant, friendly town of 6,500 (mostly white) people on the shores of Lake Erie, but confident about our future. It was, as usual, a community-wide celebration, attended by 1,150 people.4 Family or not, the townspeople thought of all the graduates as “our kids.”


Don was a soft-spoken white working-class kid, though no one in our class would have thought of him that way, for he was our star quarterback.5 His dad had only an eighth-grade education. To keep the family afloat, his dad worked two jobs—the first on the line at the Port Clinton Manufacturing factory, from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and the second, a short walk away, at the local canning plant, from 3:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. His mom, who had left school in the 11th grade, “lived in the kitchen,” Don says, making all of their meals from scratch. Every night, she sat down with Don and his two brothers for dinner. They got used to eating hash, made by frying up everything left in the house with potatoes. The boys were in bed by the time their dad got home from work.

They lived on the poorer side of town, and did not own a car or television until Don went off to college, by which time 80 percent of all American families already had a car, and 90 percent had a TV. Their neighbors drove them to church every week. The family had no money for vacations, but Don’s parents owned their home and felt reasonably secure economically, and his dad was never unemployed. “I didn’t know that I was poor until I went to college and took Economics 101,” Don recalls, “and found out that I had been ‘deprived.’?”

Despite their modest circumstances, Don’s parents urged him to aim for college, and, like many other working-class kids in our class, he chose the college-prep track at PCHS. His mom forced him to take piano lessons for six years, but his true love was sports. He played basketball and football, and his dad took time off from work to attend every single one of Don’s games. Don downplays class distinctions in Port Clinton. “I lived on the east side of town,” he says, “and money was on the west side of town. But you met everyone as an equal through sports.”

Although none of his closest friends in high school ended up going to college, Don did well in school and finished in the top quarter of our class. His parents “didn’t have a clue” about college, he says, but fortunately he had strong ties at church. “One of the ministers in town was keeping an eye on me,” he says, “and mentioned my name to the university where I ended up.” Not only that, the minister helped Don figure out how to get financial aid and navigate the admissions process.

After PCHS, Don headed off to a religiously affiliated university downstate (where he also played football) and then on to seminary. While in seminary, he developed doubts about whether he could “hack it” as a minister, he says, and came home to tell his parents he was quitting. Back home, he stopped by the local pool hall to say hello. The owner, a longtime friend of his dad’s, referred to him as “a future minister,” and a customer asked Don to pray for him—which Don interpreted as signs that he should continue on his path.

Immediately after college, Don married June, a high school teacher, and they had one child, who became a high school librarian. Don had a long and successful career as a minister and retired only recently. He still helps out in local churches and has coached high school football for many years. Looking back, he says he has been blessed with a very good life. His rise from a poor but close-knit working-class family to a successful professional career reflected his native intelligence and his gridiron grit. But as we shall see, the sort of upward mobility he achieved was not atypical for our class.


Frank came from one of the few wealthy families in Port Clinton. In the late nineteenth century, his maternal great-grandfather had started a commercial fishing business, and by the time of Frank’s birth the family had diversified into real estate and other local businesses. His mother graduated from college in the 1930s and then earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago. While in Chicago she met Frank’s father, a college-educated minister’s son, and they soon married. As Frank grew up, his father managed the family businesses—fishing, a shopping center, farming, a restaurant, and so forth—and his mother did charity work.6

Port Clinton’s social elite has long made the Port Clinton Yacht Club its hub. While Frank was growing up, his grandfather, father, and uncle each served a term as the club’s “Commodore,” and his mother and aunt were elected “Shipmates Captain”—pinnacles of local social status. In short, Frank’s parents were the wealthiest, best educated, and most socially prominent parents of the class of 1959.

Nevertheless, the social distance between Frank’s family and those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder was much shorter than is common in America (even in Port Clinton) today. Frank (who lived only four blocks away from Don) recalls his neighbors as “a nice mix of everyone”—truck driver, store owner, cashier at the A&P, officer at a major local firm, fire chief, gas station owner, game warden. “We played baseball out in the backyard or kick-the-can down at the corner,” he says. “Everybody just got along.”

Despite his family’s affluence, Frank worked summers at the family restaurant, starting at fifteen, scraping paint and doing cleanup work with his high school buddies. And his family carefully downplayed their social status. “If you’re in Port Clinton with a group of boys who can afford a Coke, that’s what you are to order,” Frank’s grandfather had memorably warned Frank’s uncle. “If we’re in Cleveland or New York, you can order whatever you want, but when you’re with kids in Port Clinton, you do what they can do.”

In high school, Frank interacted with his classmates as a social equal—so ably, in fact, that many of us were unaware of his exceptional family background. But signs of it did appear. He was the first in our class to wear braces. In elementary school he spent winter months at a family home in Florida, attending school there. His grandfather was on the school board. Frank’s parents once invited a teacher over for dinner. Afterward Frank chided his mom, “Why did you embarrass me in front of the whole class?” The suggestion that his parents might ever have intervened to try to alter a grade strikes Frank as absurd: “Are you kidding? Oh, jeez, as far as we kids knew, the teachers are always right.”

Frank was an indifferent student, but that didn’t mean his parents neglected his educational prospects. “My life was programmed from the time I was born until I was through college,” he says. “You knew you were going to go to college, and you better graduate.” With financial support from his parents, he attended a small college in Ohio, graduating with a major in journalism. After college, he enlisted in the Navy and for seven years navigated Navy transport planes around the world. “I loved it,” he recalls.

After his naval service, Frank worked for about twenty-five years as an editor for the Columbus Dispatch, until he objected to some personnel decisions and was fired. At that point he returned to Port Clinton, semiretired, to work in the family businesses—the fish-cleaning operation, dock rentals, and the boutique. He has been helped financially through some difficult years by a trust fund that his grandfather created for him at birth. “It’s not a lot of money,” he says, “but I’ll never starve.” Frank’s family fortune has cushioned him from some of life’s hard knocks, but it was not a trampoline that boosted him ahead of his peers from less affluent homes, like Don.

Class Disparities in Port Clinton in the 1950s

Class differences were not absent in Port Clinton in the 1950s, but as the lives of Frank and Don illustrate, those differences were muted. The children of manual workers and of professionals came from similar homes and mixed unselfconsciously in schools and neighborhoods, in scout troops and church groups. The class contrasts that matter so much today (even in Port Clinton, as we shall shortly see)—in economic security, family structure, parenting, schooling, neighborhoods, and so on—were minimal in that era. Virtually everyone in the PCHS class of 1959, whatever their background, lived with two parents, in homes their parents owned, and in neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else’s first name.7

Our parents, almost universally homemaker moms and breadwinner dads, were not especially well educated. Indeed, barely one in 20 of them had graduated from college, and a full third of them hadn’t even graduated from high school. (For the most part, they had completed their schooling before high school education became nearly universal.) But almost everyone in town had benefited from widely shared postwar prosperity, and few of our families were poverty-stricken. The very few kids in town who came from wealthy backgrounds, like Frank, made every effort to hide that fact.

Some dads worked the assembly lines at the local auto part factories, or in the nearby gypsum mines, or at the local Army base, or on small family farms. Others, like my dad, were small businessmen whose fortunes rose and fell with the business cycle. In that era of full employment and strong unions, few of our families experienced joblessness or serious economic insecurity. Most of my classmates, whatever their social origins, were active in sports, music, drama, and other extracurricular activities. Friday night football games attracted much of the town’s population.

Seen a half century later, my classmates (now mostly retired) have experienced astonishing upward mobility. Nearly three quarters of us obtained more education than our parents, and the vast majority made it higher up the economic ladder. In fact, some kids from less well-off backgrounds have climbed further up that ladder than kids from more comfortable, better-educated backgrounds. By contemporary standards, our class’s absolute level of upward educational mobility was remarkable, a reflection of the high school and college revolutions of the twentieth century. Half the sons and daughters of high school dropouts went on to college. Many of those who were the first in their family to complete high school ended up also being the first to complete college—a remarkable jump in a single generation. Even more striking, although the two black students in our class contended with racial prejudice (as we shall shortly see) and came from homes in which neither parent had completed grade school, both earned postgraduate degrees.

In 1950s Port Clinton, socioeconomic class was not nearly so formidable a barrier for kids of any race, white or black, as it would become in the twenty-first century. By way of comparison, the children of the members of the class of 1959 would, on average, experience no educational advance beyond their parents.8 The escalator that had carried most of the class of 1959 upward suddenly halted when our own children stepped on.

This high absolute mobility of my class of 1959 could have been consistent with low relative mobility, if everyone had moved upward in lockstep, but actually, even relative mobility was high. In fact, upward mobility among the kids from the lower half of the socioeconomic hierarchy was almost as great as among the most privileged kids. In short, lots of upward mobility from the bottom and a modest amount of downward mobility at the top.

To be sure, less educated parents, with narrower cultural horizons and less familiarity with advanced education, sometimes had lower educational aspirations for their kids. However, if they, or our teachers, or informal mentors in the community (like Don’s pastor), or our friends encouraged us to attend college, we invariably did—with virtually no trace of economic or financial or neighborhood bias in our college going.9 Low costs at public and private institutions across Ohio were supplemented by a wide array of locally raised scholarships—from the Rotary Club, the United Auto Workers Union, the Junior Women’s Club, and the like. Of all college grads in the PCHS class of 1959, two thirds of them were the first in their families to attend college, and one third were the first in their families even to graduate from high school. As the 1960s opened in Port Clinton, a single modest reform—better counseling for talented kids from poor backgrounds—would have seemed to hold the key to a truly remarkable degree of equality of opportunity, but instead (as we shall see) social history was about to reverse course.

Of the kids from lower- and middle-class backgrounds who did not immediately attend college, roughly one third later found on-ramps to postsecondary education, such as community college, with no trace of bias against kids from humbler backgrounds. The net effect of these late-blooming successes was to weaken still further the link between family background and eventual educational attainment.

This evidence from a survey of my classmates proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Port Clinton in the 1950s was a site of extraordinary upward mobility. Because the transmitters of socioeconomic status that are so potent today (economic insecurity, family instability, neighborhood distress, financial and organizational barriers) were unimportant in that period, the transmission process from generation to generation was weaker, and thus mobility was higher. Over and over again members of the class of 1959 use the same words to describe the material conditions of our youth: “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” In fact, however, in the breadth and depth of the community support we enjoyed, we were rich, but we didn’t know it.

But how about gender and race? To open our discussion of those critical issues, let’s listen first to the stories of three more of my classmates.


Libby’s father worked as a farmer and a skilled craftsman at Standard Products, while her mother was a full-time housewife. Both parents had left school in tenth grade. The family lived in a large hardscrabble farmhouse outside town. Libby, the sixth of ten children, often wore hand-me-downs. With many mouths to feed, money was tight. Libby never learned to bike or skate: “those things,” she says, “were not in the family budget.” On the other hand, with thirty acres, hardworking parents, and strong young arms, the family raised vegetables, kept chickens and cows, and was never destitute.

Libby’s parents were good role models and nurtured an unusually cohesive family unit. The family always ate supper together, praying before the meal. Her parents insisted that the kids say “please” and “thank you,” and stay at the table until everyone had finished. That spirit of togetherness has endured: Libby says that as septuagenarians she and her siblings still “circle the wagons and take care of each other” when adversity strikes.

Social life for this close-knit family revolved around school and church. Libby’s parents were involved in the PTA and the kids’ extracurricular pursuits, and each week the family sat together in church. Students from the church youth group occasionally took responsibility for adult services, and after Libby preached, she received cards from congregation members telling her what a good job she’d done. She was hired on the spot for her first job when a downtown store owner recognized her from the pulpit.

Academically, Libby’s parents set high expectations for their children, and Libby lived up to them: she was an honors student in the college-prep track. Equally important, she made friends easily and could be counted on to get things done. “If you find enough people to help,” she recalls her mother saying, “you can accomplish just about everything.” A natural politician, Libby was elected president of the German Club, the Future Teachers of America, the Honor Society, and the Junior Class. Nearly 60 years later, Libby remembers high school as one of the most rewarding periods in her life. “I was in my element,” she says.

When the time came for college, an English teacher helped Libby win an academic scholarship to the University of Toledo. Libby planned to become a teacher, but almost as soon as she arrived at college, she and her high school sweetheart found themselves overwhelmed by how much they missed each other. And so, like so many of her female peers, Libby dropped out of college, returned home, got married, started a family, and settled down as a civic-minded housewife.

When the marriage ended after 20 years, however, Libby was left on her own. Suddenly, she found her lack of a college degree and work experience, and society’s pervasive gender bias, were holding her back. For the only time in her life, she became frightened about her future.

She proved resilient, however. Libby’s decades in the social life of this small town had given her a wide reputation for dependability and congeniality. Beginning as a clerk in the lumberyard, she quickly became a writer for the local newspaper and then the head of a nonprofit group. Libby’s father, always supportive, encouraged her to enter electoral politics, and within little more than a decade she had been elected to the county-wide office that she still holds, nearly thirty years later. As Libby’s track record in PCHS demonstrated, her emotional intelligence and civic spirit were well matched for public life.

As she entered her 70s, Libby had become widely respected statewide as a public official and a quiet power in local party politics. Still feeling the call of service, she began training as a minister and now also serves as a part-time pastor in several area churches.

This farm girl with hand-me-down clothes and exceptional people skills was, beyond doubt, held back by the cultural norms of the 1950s, particularly after she left high school. Born a few decades later, Libby would probably have trained for a profession and might well have risen to the top of Ohio politics. Libby’s gender was a serious impediment to upward mobility. But her modest class origins were not.

Libby’s experience was typical of women in the class of 1959. Men and women in our cohort were equally likely to attend high school, equally involved in academic and nonacademic activities, equally qualified in terms of academics and extracurriculars, equally likely to aspire to college, and equally likely to attend college. Until we left PCHS, our class experienced no gender differences in opportunity for advancement.

Gender massively affected who completed college, however, and thus just like Libby, the women in my high school class were deprived of what would turn out to be the most important credential for upward mobility—a college degree. Equal numbers of men and women of the class of 1959 went off to college, but 88 percent of the men got a degree, compared to 22 percent of the women! In short, no gender winnowing at all until college, and then extreme gender winnowing.

Exactly as in Libby’s story, that extraordinary difference was due almost entirely to women dropping out of college to get married. Women in my class were three times more likely to marry during college than men, and marriage was six times more of a barrier to finishing college for women than for men. Men were less likely to marry, and if they did, they stayed in school. Half a century later, my female classmates explain that whatever their academic or professional inclinations, they followed the social norms of the era—marriage, home, and a family. Of course, their world would change dramatically in the ensuing decades, as Libby recounts, but most of them (including Libby) say they don’t regret leaving college to start a family.10 On the other hand, self-imposed or not, the personal and social costs of having to choose between family and career were extraordinary.

The contrast with educational winnowing in twenty-first-century America could not be starker. Nowadays, women are more likely to graduate from college than men. On the other hand, 50 years ago family background had very little to do with who finished college, and nowadays it makes a huge difference, as we shall see in Chapter 4.

What about race, then and now?

Jesse and Cheryl

“Your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now.”

Even in a group that collectively experienced remarkable upward mobility in life, two of our 1959 classmates stand out—the only two black students, Jesse and Cheryl. Their experiences were in many respects parallel.

  • Both arrived in Port Clinton as children of families fleeing physical violence in the South, part of what historians call “the Great Migration.”11 Jesse’s family fled Mississippi after his sister was killed, while Cheryl’s family were forced to leave Tennessee after an altercation between her father and a white man.
  • Though none of their parents had a formal education beyond elementary school in the Jim Crow South, both Jesse and Cheryl benefited from tightly knit, hardworking, religiously observant, two-parent families.
  • Both lived in poorer sections of town. Jesse’s father loaded boxcars for a local manufacturer, while his mother worked as a seasonal maid in a nearby hotel. Cheryl’s father worked in the gypsum mines and in a fruit-packing plant, while her mother cleaned houses. However, neither considered their families poor. “When we got to Ohio,” Jesse recalls, “my dad always had a job, so we always had food and a place to live.”
  • Both excelled in high school. Jesse, perhaps the best all around athlete in school, was named MVP of the football team and was elected president of the student council. Cheryl was an elected officer of our senior class and ranked very near the top academically.
  • Immediately after graduation, both went to good nearby colleges on partial scholarships, obtained graduate degrees, entered the field of public education, and recently retired after long and successful careers. That leap from elementary-school-educated laborers to graduate-school-educated professionals in a single generation is a remarkable testament to their native talent and fortitude, and also to the relative weakness of class barriers to advancement in that era.

This bare biographical recital might suggest that Jesse and Cheryl lived trouble-free childhoods in Port Clinton and achieved their successes in life relatively easily. But they were two black kids living in a predominantly white small town in the pre–Civil Rights 1950s, and inevitably race became the most salient part of their identities, imposed on them by their social environment.

When Jesse first arrived in Port Clinton, he was stared at by classmates who had never gone to school with a black person, just as he had never gone to school with a white person. But he soon began to make friends, especially after he turned out to be good at sports. The son of Jesse’s father’s white supervisor at work persuaded his father, a Little League coach, to invite Jesse to join their team. “I got on the Little League team,” he says, “and started making friends. When you become an athlete, and you’re good, and you help the team, people start liking you. I felt welcome on my team, but the other teams didn’t like me being on the team.”

A talented four-sport athlete, Jesse focused on athletics in high school. Aside from his parents, the most influential person in his life was his football coach—but not because he was particularly sympathetic or close to Jesse. “He was a figurehead,” Jesse says, “whose values you wanted to emulate—the hard work, discipline, drive, work together, win. Given where he came from, this guy didn’t particularly care to interact with me, but he liked me because of my skills. He could give me an assignment, and I would do it.”

Jesse was even-tempered and avoided confrontations. “That’s the way you had to be in Mississippi to survive,” he says. “If I had responded to white people in Mississippi, I probably wouldn’t be here talking with you.” In high school, Jesse recalls, “I had such a good personality that they elected me president of the student council.” He recalls with pleasure that the candidate he defeated was the author of this book.

During high school Jesse assumed he would not go to college, because his family had no money, but a football coach from a nearby college showed up at his home during his senior year to offer him a generous scholarship. When Jesse discussed the offer with his parents, his father told him, “Son, if you don’t get an education, you’ll have to work as hard as I work.” His father agreed to loan him the $500 in costs not covered by the scholarship, and Jesse went off to college.

After college Jesse hoped to go to law school, but he didn’t have the money. He hitchhiked to California, where he was only able to find a job as a utility worker in an electronics company. A friend suggested that he seek a teaching job and work for his teaching credentials. In the end he got a master’s degree and spent more than four decades as a teacher, dean, vice principal, principal, and regional director in the Los Angeles education system.

Reflecting on his childhood in Port Clinton, Jesse notes that although he felt uncomfortable about entering a few business establishments, his experience in town was generally positive. “There were so many nice people in Port Clinton,” he says, “some of the most pleasant, accepting, and tolerant I ever met. We would go fishing, and they would let us take out the boat.”

His family lived in a poor, racially mixed neighborhood. “We had a lot of white neighbors who we walked to school with every day,” he recalls, “and we were friends. We never had problems. Everybody was trying to live, and it wasn’t about what color you were.” A white teammate on the football team who knew that Jesse’s family didn’t have money took to inviting Jesse over to his house for lunch.

On the other hand, the backdrop to Jesse’s good relations with his closest peers was racial prejudice and polarization in the wider society. “The hardest part was not being accepted as a human being. Some people would like you, but others would ostracize you when you never did anything to them.”

Jesse says he lived between “two worlds—a black world and a white world. Black kids didn’t like it because I got along so well with white kids, [and] when I was with the black kids, the white kids was mad. I’m out there trying to appease both sides and trying to get them to understand that we are all human beings. My white friends would want me to go to a white party in a nearby town, but other kids there, or their parents, might not be so tolerant. My friends were welcome, but I was not welcome, all because I was black.”

Cheryl has a different story. Her strong role model was her mother, a savvy and competent woman who insisted that Cheryl not use the word can’t. “From watching Mama,” she says, “I grew up knowing I could do anything. Some things are more caught than taught.”

Cheryl’s family had first moved to a village near the gypsum mines, where they lived in company housing without indoor toilets. When that housing was closed as unhealthy, the family bought a lot in Port Clinton at the edge of a mostly black neighborhood and moved an older house onto it, though in response to neighbors’ protests they were forced to shift the house on its foundation so that it would face away from the adjacent white neighborhood. Subsequently, one of her mother’s housecleaning clients arranged for them to buy a better house in a nearby white area, but the sale was aborted after somebody erected a cross in the yard.

Cheryl says she encountered little overt racism as she grew up. She doesn’t recall hearing racial epithets. “You could go anywhere and no one was going to bother you,” she says. She could ride her bike all over town and take books out from the public library on her own.

What did bother her was the lack of socializing across racial lines. “Port Clinton had a wonderful education system that prepared people [including her, she adds] for college, but 50 percent of high school is socializing,” she says, “and that’s what we missed. When I was at school with my white classmates, we talked, and after that it was over. I didn’t go home with them; they didn’t come home with me. So whatever I had to do, I did by myself.” A white friend in elementary school once refused to acknowledge her when Cheryl encountered the girl and her mother on the street. “I was happy to see her,” Cheryl recalls, “but she acted like she didn’t even know who I was. I was really hurt by that.”

Cheryl and her older sister wanted to join a girls’ majorettes group, but they knew they couldn’t, because the group traveled to places that wouldn’t be so tolerant as Port Clinton. “We never tried to join,” she says, “because there’s some things you just know that you can’t be part of.” She and Jesse double-dated with a popular white couple, but they couldn’t go to the local skating rink, because they expected to be refused admittance—a reasonable fear, a white classmate would much later confirm. “It wasn’t like anybody stood outside and said you couldn’t come,” she says. “You just knew that you don’t even try.”

An avid and precocious reader, Cheryl got good grades, and wound up in college prep at PCHS, she says, “because my white friends were going to college.” Her parents did not particularly encourage her to pursue higher education, however. “It wasn’t on their radar screen. They didn’t ever talk much about school.” At one point, she wrote to a business school in Cleveland, but her mother shut that down, saying, “We don’t have any money for you to go to college”—a response that stung.

A turning point came for Cheryl during her senior year in high school, when a white woman for whom she and her mother worked as housecleaners and who had come to respect Cheryl’s work ethic learned about her outstanding academic record, and was shocked to discover that nobody at school had talked to her about college. This woman—the wife of the CEO of one of Port Clinton’s largest firms—energetically took up Cheryl’s case. “I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without that lady going to bat for me,” she recalls, “putting on that fur coat of hers and marching down to the principal’s office. Twice!” The reluctant principal finally agreed to take Cheryl to visit a nearby state university.

She was admitted to that university, got a partial academic scholarship, and worked summers for four years in menial jobs to cover the rest of the cost. She enjoyed college much more than high school, she says, because there were more blacks, so that “the social part that was missing in high school was available in college.” Still, looking back at her time in college, Cheryl regrets that she didn’t explore careers beyond teaching or social work. “Some kids say, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer, because my dad’s a lawyer,’?” she says. “If I had had some exposure, I would not have been a teacher, because there are so many other things that you could do. But not in the 1960s.”

Cheryl’s brothers had more trouble navigating Port Clinton than she did. “If you didn’t cross the line, which I never did,” Cheryl says, “you could avoid trouble, but if you did cross the line, you would run into some problems.” That happened to her younger brother, she recalls. In a history class on slavery, “he went ballistic and got in real trouble,” she says, after his teacher said that black people don’t have souls. The teacher had made the same remark when Cheryl had been in this class, but she had seethed in silence. For one of her older brothers, simply trying to buy a house upon his return from the Korean War amounted to crossing a line. “I don’t care how much money you have,” the most prominent real estate agent in town told him, “you’re not going to buy a house here.”

Her sense of not belonging still haunts Cheryl when she looks back on Port Clinton, even though she emphasizes that she was helped and befriended by individual white people in town. “Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, best describes my experience at PCHS,” she says. “As an African American student in the graduating class of 1959, I participated in but never felt a part of the student body.” America, for her, is a deeply racist system that did not—and still does not—allow her or her family to participate fully in economic and social life. For white kids, Port Clinton in the 1950s was a great place to grow up, but she tells me, amicably but accurately, “Your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now.”

  • •  •

There was much racism in Port Clinton in the 1950s, less violent and more subtle than in other parts of America at the time, but painful and deeply wounding nonetheless, as Jesse and Cheryl make clear. Port Clinton, like America, has made hard-won, halting progress toward racial equity in the last half century, and we must not sugarcoat race relations in the 1950s. On the other hand, as Jesse and Cheryl also emphasize, in Port Clinton of the 1950s humble class origins did not prevent them from using their talents and work ethic to achieve great upward mobility, any more than comparably modest family backgrounds prevented Don and Libby from gaining success in life.

In the half century since Libby, Cheryl, and Jesse came of age, the power of race, class, and gender to shape life chances in America has been substantially reconfigured.12 Inequality in the United States increasingly operates through education—a scarce resource in our knowledge-based economy and a measure that is closely correlated with parental socioeconomic status. Gender inequality, very high in the 1950s, has fallen sharply, so that women are now more likely to graduate from college than men, and gender gaps in pay are shrinking, though still present.

Progress on racial difference has been less encouraging. To be sure, controlling for education, racial gaps in income are modest, and racial gaps in family structure and test scores, though high, are falling. On the other hand, racial gaps in schooling and involvement with the criminal justice system remain immense. Black parents in America remain disproportionately concentrated among the poor and less educated, so black children continue to be handicapped from the start. Whether their parents are rich or poor, black children live in poorer neighborhoods than white children at that income level, and black children experience less upward mobility and more downward mobility than their white counterparts who started at the same income level.13

So, gender and racial biases remain powerful, but as barriers to success they would represent less burdensome obstacles for Libby, Jesse, and Cheryl today than they did in the 1950s. By contrast, in modern America one barrier would loom much larger than it did back then: their class origins. That nationwide increase in class inequality—how the class-based opportunity gap among young people has widened in recent decades—is the subject of this book.

Class Disparities in Port Clinton in the Twenty-first Century

As my classmates and I marched down the steps after graduation in 1959, none of us had any inkling that change was coming. Almost half of us headed off to college, and those who stayed in town had every reason to expect they would get a job (if they were male), get married, and lead a comfortable life, just as their parents had done. For about a decade those expectations were happily met.

But just beyond the horizon an economic, social, and cultural whirlwind was gathering force nationally that would radically transform the life chances of our children and grandchildren. For many people, its effects would be gut-wrenching, for Port Clinton turns out to be a poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades.

The manufacturing foundation upon which Port Clinton’s modest prosperity had been built in the 1950s and 1960s began to tremble in the 1970s. The big Standard Products factory at the east end of town had provided nearly 1,000 steady, well-paying blue-collar jobs in the 1950s, but in the 1970s the payroll was trimmed to less than half that, and after more than two decades of layoffs and givebacks, the plant gates on Maple Street finally closed in 1993. Twenty years later, only the hulking ruins of the plant remain, with EPA signs on the barbed wire fence warning of environmental hazard. But the closing of the Standard Products factory, the Army base, and the gypsum mines were merely the most visible symbols of the town’s pervasive economic collapse.

Manufacturing employment in Ottawa County, of which Port Clinton is by far the largest town, plummeted from 55 percent of all jobs in 1965 to 25 percent in 1995 and kept falling.14 Unemployment rose and fell with the national economic tides, but the local booms were never as good as the national booms, and the local hard times were much worse. As late as the 1970s, real wages locally were slightly above the national average, but during the next four decades they fell further and further behind, bottoming out at 25 percent below the national average. By 2012 the average worker in Ottawa County had not had a real raise for nearly half a century, and is now paid 16 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather (or grandmother) was in the early 1970s.

The Port Clinton population, which had jumped 53 percent in the three decades prior to 1970, suddenly stagnated in the 1970s and 1980s, and then fell by 17 percent in the two decades after 1990. Commutes to jobs got longer and longer, as desperate local workers sought employment elsewhere. Most of the downtown shops of my youth stand empty and derelict, driven out of business partly by the Family Dollar and the Walmart on the outskirts of town, and partly by the gradually shrinking paychecks of Port Clinton consumers.

The social impact of those economic hammer blows was initially softened by the family and community bonds that had been so strong in my youth. But as successive graduating PCHS classes entered an ever-worsening local economy, the social norms that had undergirded Port Clinton’s community in the 1950s and 1960s gradually eroded. Juvenile delinquency rates had been just about at the national average in the 1980s but then began to skyrocket, and by 2010 were three times the national average. Increasingly, any PCHS graduate who could escape did. Net departures from Ottawa County among 30-somethings more than doubled from the 1970s to the 2010s, from 13 percent to 27 percent.

Not surprisingly, given the economic stresses and strains, single-parent households in Ottawa County doubled from 1970 to 2010, from 10 percent to 20 percent, and the divorce rate quintupled. The incidence of unwed births in the county rose sharply between 1990 and 2010, from less than 20 percent to nearly 40 percent, outpacing a similar increase among whites nationwide and portending a continuing increase in single parenting in the years ahead. In Port Clinton itself, epicenter of the local economic collapse of the 1980s, the rate of unwed births absolutely exploded in little more than a decade. Between 1978 and 1990, the rate jumped from 9 percent (about half the race-adjusted national average) to about 40 percent (nearly twice the national average). And in the decades that followed, child poverty skyrocketed from less than 10 percent in 1999 to nearly 40 percent in 2013.15

But the story of Port Clinton over the last half century—like the history of America over these decades—is not simply about the collapse of the working class, because the same years have witnessed the birth of a new upper class.

Port Clinton occupies a lovely site on the shores of Lake Erie. In my youth, small summer cottages and modest resorts and fishing camps dotted those shores, interspersed among fruit orchards, and the shoreline felt available to us all. In the past two decades, however, while the traditional economy of Port Clinton was imploding, wealthy lawyers and doctors and businesspeople from Cleveland and Columbus and other major cities of the Midwest have discovered the charms of the lakeshore and the nearby offshore islands and have begun to take these areas over—for second homes, for retirement, and occasionally even for a better quality of life, at the expense of longer commutes to their well-paying jobs back in the city.

Joined by some fortunate local developers, the newcomers have built elaborate mansions and gated communities. These now line the shore almost uninterruptedly for 20 miles on either side of town. Luxury condos ring golf courses and lagoons filled with opulent yachts. One home along the shore in the upscale Catawba area includes an indoor theater and an athletic court. Nowadays you can read ads in adjacent columns of the real estate pages of the Port Clinton News-Herald for near-million-dollar mansions and dilapidated double-wides, and it is possible to walk in less than ten minutes from wealthy estates on the shoreline to impoverished trailer parks inland.

The distribution of income in Ottawa County, once among the most egalitarian in the country, began to skew over these decades: the number of residents at both the top and the bottom increased, and the middle slumped. In 2010, the median household income in the Catawba Island area was more than twice the median household income in the adjoining census tract. Moreover, the pace and concentration of the transformation has been stunning, as the maps in Figures 1.1 and 1.2 reveal. Census tracts with relatively more poor kids are darker, so the maps show that Port Clinton itself (especially outside the immediate downtown) had many more poor kids in 2008–2012 than two decades earlier, but the Catawba residential area along the shore experienced virtually no such change over those decades. In 2011 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, if you drove east from downtown Port Clinton along East Harbor Road, the census tract to your left along the Catawba lakeshore had a child poverty rate of 1 percent, whereas the census tract on the other side of the road had a child poverty rate of 51 percent.

Let’s explore what life is like today for two white kids who live on different sides of that road.

Source: Census 1990 data as compiled by Social Explorer, accessed through Harvard University Library.
Source: ACS 2008–2012 (5-year estimates) data as compiled by Social Explorer, accessed through Harvard University Library.


Chelsea and her family live in a large white home with a wide porch overlooking the lake. They also have an expensive second home in a nearby small town, where Chelsea and her older brother went to school. Chelsea’s mother, Wendy, comes from an affluent family in Michigan, where her father was a prominent lawyer. She has a graduate degree and works part-time as a special educator in private practice. She values her flexible schedule, because raising her two kids (who are now in college) has been her top priority. Chelsea’s father, Dick, is a sales manager for a major national corporation, and he travels a great deal for his business. “He wasn’t real big on being a father when they were young,” Wendy says.

Wendy herself, on the other hand, has been intensely involved in her children’s lives growing up. “I probably pushed my kids a lot more than my parents ever pushed us,” she says. “I was a real grade hound [with my kids]. I really pushed them through high school, and then I just continued. I read to them [as infants]. That’s the biggest thing—read, read, read, read when they were little, and they were both reading when they got into kindergarten.” She is critical of other moms who are not so involved. “I see so many kids that are just so lost,” she says. “Their mothers don’t care.”

When Chelsea got home from school each day, at least one parent was always home. She and her older brother did their homework at the kitchen island while their mom cooked dinner. The whole family ate together every night, except when her brother was playing football. “Family dinner is critical,” Wendy says, “because the kids learn how to discourse with other people.”

Chelsea’s parents threw fancy themed birthday parties for her every year—tea party at age five, Barbie princess at six, Academy Awards (complete with limo pickups for the guests) at 11, Las Vegas casino night at 16. Worried that kids in the neighbourhood had nowhere to hang out, she installed a 1950s-style diner in their basement. “I’m the cook at the 1950s diner,” Wendy says, “which was good, because all their friends would talk to me about stuff, and I knew where they were.”

Wendy is proud of standing up for her kids at school. When a seventh-grade teacher claimed that Chelsea’s older brother had not completed an assignment, she proved to the teacher that he had—and when the teacher then refused to change his grade to reflect that, she appealed first to the principal and then to the school board. The school board changed the grade and moved the teacher to a different position. Another case in point: Chelsea worked hard on her high school yearbook for four years, and served as its editor-in-chief during her senior year, anticipating that she would get the annual yearbook-based college scholarship. When the teacher in charge declined to nominate Chelsea for the scholarship, her mother went to the principal. He knew immediately why she was there. “You know me,” she said. “I will go to the school board. . . . Just tell the teacher to write the [fellowship] check, and let’s get this over with.” The check arrived next day.

Chelsea describes herself as “the most active person” in her high school—student body president, yearbook editor, National Honor Society, president of the book club, “and a whole bunch of other stuff.” Her parents pitched in for school events, even more than other parents. They helped build a giant King Kong float out of chicken wire, because the kids did not know how. When Chelsea was in charge of the prom, and other students failed to show up to construct the scenery, Wendy was there, hot-gluing in the middle of the night.

Although the family is comfortable financially, Wendy doesn’t see herself or her affluent peers as “old money” gentry. “Most parents around here are Midwest parents who work for their money,” she says. “It’s not like Beverly Hills and the Hamptons.” She encourages her kids to have part-time and summer jobs. “You have to work if you want to get rich,” she insists. She’s skeptical about special funding for educating poorer kids. “If my kids are going to be successful, I don’t think they should have to pay other people who are sitting around doing nothing for their success.”

Asked about times of stress in her life, Chelsea responds, “There’s never really been any financial problem.” When a friend of her family committed suicide, it was emotionally very stressful, but she was able to talk with her mom and dad about her feelings, and describes them as good role models. “The people I surround myself with have always tried to help me and push me in the right direction,” she says. “I am content with what I’m doing in my life.”

Chelsea always knew that she’d go to college. Her parents encouraged good grades by promising her and her brother to pay the full ticket for college if they graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Both did, and both now attend the same Big Ten university. Chelsea is aiming for law school, following in the footsteps of her grandfather.


David was a scrawny 18-year-old in jeans and a baseball cap when we first encountered him in a Port Clinton park in 2012. His father had dropped out of high school and tried in vain to make a living as a truck driver, like his own father, but as an adult has been employed only episodically, in odd jobs like landscaping. David apologizes for not being able to tell us more about his father. “He’s in prison,” he explains, “and I can’t ask him.” David’s parents separated when David was very little, and his mother moved out, so he can’t tell us much about her, either, except to say that she lives in the Port Clinton area. “All her boyfriends have been nuts,” he says. “I never really got to see my mom that much. She was never there.”

David has bounced around a lot. He has grown up mostly in his father’s custody, though his father has been in and out of prison. A steady stream of women flowed through his dad’s life during David’s childhood, often floating on drugs. David and his dad would live with David’s paternal grandmother on the impoverished side of East Harbor Road for a while; then his dad would try to make it on his own, and another woman would come into his life. But eventually either his dad couldn’t pay the rent, or he would start “partying” again, and they’d end up back with the grandmother. David has nine half-siblings, but no fixed address.

When David was ten or 11, his dad hooked up for several years with a woman whom David called his stepmother, although she was never actually married to his father. The stepmother, he says, was “crazy . . . drinking, pills, drugs,” and now lives with another guy, with whom she has several other children. When she left, David says, his dad “went off the deep end” with drugs and women. The way adults moved in and out of his life without worrying about what happened to the kids left David feeling as though “nobody gave a shit” about him and his half-siblings.

David’s father was recently sent to prison for a string of robberies. David can’t visit him in prison, because he himself is on probation. He feels close to his father, the only adult who has been around all his life, but he worries that his father is unstable. “Sometimes he’s mad at me,” he says, “sometimes he’s not. It’s just if I catch him on a good day.”

David’s family life was obviously chaotic. He dealt with the stress by escaping with friends, staying away from home, and smoking marijuana. “I missed having a home,” he says. “I know how close I want my own family to be, because of how close I wasn’t.” He adds, “I never really had around-the-table family dinners at all, so I never got to miss it.”

Because of his dad’s itinerant existence, David went to seven different elementary schools. School, he recalls, was always a problem. “I just let grades float until the end of the semester,” he says, “and I passed every year. I’ve never been held back. In middle school I got into a fight with another kid, so they kicked me out and sent me to ‘behavior school,’?” which he hated. Finally, with assistance from a local teacher, in 12th grade he transferred to a “career-based intervention class” at a nearby high school, where he earned a diploma, mostly because he got school credit for working at Big Bopper’s Diner. Immediately after graduation, the Big Bopper fired him.

David himself got into lots of trouble, in part because he started hanging out with the wrong kids. At age 13 he broke into a series of stores and was put under house arrest for five months. He could attend school, but otherwise he had to stay at home alone, where all he did was play video games. “It’s all I had to do,” he says. Out on probation, he got into further trouble by getting drunk and failing a drug test, which sent him back to juvie. He has essentially no support network. It was his pre-jail friends who got him in trouble in the first place, and the ones he met behind bars were no better. “If you make friends in jail,” he says, “you usually go back to jail with them friends.”

Since leaving school, David has had various temporary jobs—at fast food restaurants, in a plastics factory, and doing landscaping. He has a hard time getting a job because of his juvenile record, and he can’t afford the “couple hundred dollars” in legal fees that it would cost to get the record expunged. He worked hard to qualify as foreman on the landscaping job, but then lost that opportunity because he had points on his license for speeding.

Despite his troubles in school, David has clear educational aspirations. “I really want to get a higher education,” he says. “I need one. It’s hard to get a job without one anymore.” But he has no idea how to get there. He can recall no helpful guidance counselor or teacher from his school years, and his parents are obviously useless. He notes bitterly that nobody at all in Port Clinton was willing to offer him help when he was younger. People in town knew what was going on in his family, he says, but no one cared enough to reach out to him. The fact that his father and mother “had a bad name in town,” he believes, meant that townspeople were disinclined to treat him with any sympathy. In the most fundamental sense, David has had to fend for himself his entire life.

Unexpectedly, given his life experience, David feels great responsibility for his diverse brood of younger half-siblings, because no competent adult is caring for them. “I’m the only one that can raise them,” he says. David’s sense of obligation to his half-siblings seems deep and sincere. “It’s like everybody is looking at me to hold it together,” he says, “and I feel a lot of pressure because of that.” In fact, when we first met him in the park in 2012, he was affectionately watching over an eight-year-old half-brother. Earlier that day, he had been the only family member to attend the school Olympics in which his little brother had competed. In a conversation two years later, David reported that that same little brother was now himself caring for a still younger baby brother, born to the drug-addled stepmother.

In 2012 David’s girlfriend became pregnant. “It wasn’t planned,” he says. “It just kind of happened.” At that point, he was hoping that the birth of his child would bring his life together, but he admitted he wasn’t sure if he could trust his girlfriend. Sadly, his instincts proved accurate: two years later she was living with a new partner (a drug addict, like her), and David shares custody of their daughter. He lives paycheck to paycheck, but says his daughter has provided him with a sense of purpose. “I love being a dad,” he says. “She just looks at me like I’m the Almighty.”

In 2012, we asked David if he ever felt like just giving up. “Yeah,” he replied, “Sometimes I get that feeling that there’s no point in it, but I bounce out of it. It kind of gets me down at times, but I try not to put my mind to it that much.” By 2014, distraught by his girlfriend’s betrayal and his dead-end job, he posted an update on Facebook. “I always end up at the losing end,” he wrote. “I just want to feel whole again. I’ll never get ahead! I’ve been trying so hard at everything in my life and still get no credit at all. Done . . . I’m FUCKING DONE!”

•  •  •

Comparing Port Clinton kids in the 1950s with Port Clinton kids today, the opportunity gap has widened dramatically, partly because affluent kids now enjoy more advantages than affluent kids then, but mostly because poor kids now are in much worse shape than their counterparts then. Frank’s parents were relaxed about his indifferent performance at school, in contrast to Wendy’s intensive parenting, from her “read, read, read, read” regime to her midnight hot-gluing of prom props. Frank’s family encouraged him to hang out with kids from modest backgrounds, whereas Wendy hired limos for fancy birthday parties. Chelsea’s neighborhood is exclusive, whereas Frank’s wasn’t. Chelsea dominated her high school’s activities, whereas Frank definitely didn’t. Chelsea and her mom are proud of Wendy’s interventions at school on her kids’ behalf, while Frank is appalled at the thought.

Compared to working-class kids in 1959, their counterparts today, like David, lead troubled, isolated, hopeless lives. Don, Libby, Cheryl, and Jesse all had stable, two-parent, loving families. David hardly has a family at all. Don’s dad, despite working two jobs, came to every one of Don’s games, and Libby’s and Cheryl’s moms were role models, while David’s dad, mom, and stepmom are, at best, object lessons of failed lives. Libby learned manners, values, and loyalty at regular family dinners, but David has no idea what a family dinner would be like. All four of the 1950s working-class kids were encouraged by family or school or both to head for college, whereas David “floated” with virtually no guidance from anyone. Teachers, coaches, church elders, and even fur-clad matrons reached out to help Libby and Jesse and Cheryl and Don, while townspeople left David to fend for himself. Everyone in my parents’ generation (from pool shark to pastor) thought of Don and Libby as “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of David’s existence, and even fewer would think of him as one of “our kids.”16

Port Clinton is just one small town among many, of course—but the rest of this book will show that its trajectory during the past five decades, and the divergent destinies of its children, are not unique. Port Clinton is not simply a Rust Belt story, for example, although it is that. Subsequent chapters will trace similar patterns in communities all over the country, from Bend, Oregon, to Atlanta, and from Orange County, California, to Philadelphia. But first, zooming out from our close focus on Port Clinton to a wide-angle view of contemporary American society, let’s examine the principle of equality and what it actually means for Americans today.

Inequality in America: The Broader Picture

Contemporary discussion of inequality in America often conflates two related but distinct issues:

Equality of income and wealth. The distribution of income and wealth among adults in today’s America—framed by the Occupy movement as the 1 percent versus the 99 percent—has generated much partisan debate during the past several years. Historically, however, most Americans have not been greatly worried about that sort of inequality: we tend not to begrudge others their success or care how high the socioeconomic ladder is, assuming that everyone has an equal chance to climb it, given equal merit and energy.

• Equality of opportunity and social mobility. The prospects for the next generation—that is, whether young people from different backgrounds are, in fact, getting onto the ladder at about the same place and, given equal merit and energy, are equally likely to scale it—pose an altogether more momentous problem in our national culture. Beginning with the “all men are created equal” premise of our national independence, Americans of all parties have historically been very concerned about this issue.

These two types of equality are obviously related, because the distribution of income in one generation may affect the distribution of opportunity in the next generation—but they are not the same thing. The distribution of income and wealth among today’s parents forms a crucial backdrop to our story, just as it does to the contrasting lives of Chelsea and David. However, this book will focus primarily on the distribution of opportunity among today’s kids and will seek to answer this question: Do youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds in fact have roughly equal life chances, and has that changed in recent decades?17 The difference in starting points between Frank and Don in the 1950s, for example, seems dwarfed by the difference between Chelsea and David in the 2010s, but how far can we generalize those cases? I begin with an overview of aspiration, myth, and reality regarding inequality in both senses throughout the long course of American history.

Americans are today divided about how much (if at all) income and wealth should be redistributed, Robin Hood–like, from today’s affluent to today’s poor. More than two thirds of us (concentrated among Democrats, minorities, and the poor, but including majorities of people of all political persuasions and walks of life) favor a more equal distribution than obtains today. While large majorities favor pragmatic steps to limit inequality of condition, we are also philosophical conservatives, suspicious of the ability of government to redress inequality and convinced that responsibility for an individual’s well-being rests chiefly with him or her.18

On the other hand, we are less divided about the desirability of upward mobility without regard to family origins. About 95 percent of us endorse the principle that “everyone in America should have equal opportunity to get ahead,” a broad consensus that has hardly wavered since opinion surveys began more than a half century ago.19 (The consensus is a bit shakier when the question is whether our society should do “whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” Nine in ten Americans agree, but only 48 percent of the top quintile in terms of socioeconomic status agree strongly, as compared to 70 percent of the bottom quintile.20) About 90 percent of Americans of all political persuasions say they support more spending on public education to try to ensure that everyone gets a fair start in life. And if forced to choose, Americans at all income levels say by nearly three to one that it is “more important for this country . . . to ensure everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic standing [than] to reduce inequality in America.21 As the former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has phrased it, “A bedrock American principle is the idea that all individuals should have the opportunity to succeed on the basis of their own effort, skill, and ingenuity.22

The roots of this primal commitment to equality of opportunity are deep and diverse. Ben Franklin’s Autobiography laid down the quintessential “rags-to-riches” narrative of colonial America. The absence of a preexisting feudal social structure—an important exception must be made for the antebellum slave-owning aristocracy—helped create and sustain an egalitarian political structure, marked especially by the rise of populist Jacksonian democracy of the 1830s. The vastness of the American frontier, with its virtually free land—free at least to the new settlers—made the ideal of upward mobility seem attainable. As Frederick Jackson Turner, the renowned historian of the frontier, put it, “The West was another name for opportunity.”23 Recurring spurts of evangelical religious fervor in America’s Great Awakenings (like the abolitionist Second Great Awakening of the 1830s and the “Social Gospel” of the Progressive Era) provided morally freighted reinforcement for extension of the foundational national pledge that God had created each of us equal.

America’s bounteous economy, finally, encouraged the hope that upward mobility was possible for all. The same 1950s boom that sustained Port Clinton’s egalitarian culture led the historian David Potter in his 1954 best-seller People of Plenty to claim that American affluence had allowed more equality of opportunity “than any previous society or previous era of history had ever witnessed.”24 Even if the popular belief in equality of opportunity was exaggerated, he added, it had led Americans to believe that if we can’t make it on our own, it’s our own fault. Equality in America, Potter wrote, had come to mean not equality of outcome, as in Europe, but “in a major sense, parity in competition.” That transatlantic contrast in outlook persists undiminished today.25 Compared to our European peers, Americans remain more skeptical about redistributive policies and more emphatic about social mobility.

Although “the American Dream” is a surprisingly recent coinage (the term was first used in its modern sense in the 1930s), the cultural trope of Horatio Alger and the prospect of upward social mobility have very deep roots in our psyche. In 1843, McGuffey’s Reader—in effect, our first national school textbook—told students, “The road to wealth, to honor, to usefulness, and happiness, is open to all, and all who will, may enter upon it with the almost certain prospect of success.”26

Throughout the half century after World War II, roughly two thirds of Americans from all walks of life told pollsters that as a matter of fact, anyone who worked hard could get ahead.27 In the twenty-first century, however, surveys have revealed a creeping pessimism about the chances for upward mobility for the next generation, and about whether hard work would really be rewarded. Nevertheless, on balance most Americans have believed (at least until recently) that equality of opportunity characterizes our society—that the American Dream, in other words, endures.28

Toward Two Americas?

So far we’ve surveyed Americans’ beliefs about equality and mobility. But what about the facts? When it comes to class differences in America, what have been the trends, now and in the past?

Graphically, the ups and downs of inequality in America during the twentieth century trace a gigantic U, beginning and ending in two Gilded Ages, but with a long period of relative equality around mid-century. The economic historians Claudia Golden and Lawrence Katz have described the pattern as “a tale of two half-centuries.”29 As the century opened, economic inequality was high, but from about 1910 to about 1970 the distribution of income gradually became more equal. Two world wars and the Great Depression contributed to this flattening of the economic pyramid, but the equalizing trend continued during the three postwar decades (the egalitarian period during which my classmates and I grew up in Port Clinton). “From 1945 to 1975,” the sociologist Douglas Massey has written, summarizing that era, “under structural arrangements implemented during the New Deal, poverty rates steadily fell, median incomes consistently rose, and inequality progressively dropped, as a rising economic tide lifted all boats.”30 In fact, during this period the dinghies actually rose slightly faster than the yachts, as income for the top fifth grew about 2.5 percent annually, while for the bottom fifth the rise was about 3 percent a year.

In the early 1970s, however, that decades-long equalizing trend began to reverse, slowly at first but then with accelerating harshness. Initially, the growing division appeared in the lower reaches of the income hierarchy, as the bottom dropped away from the middle and top, but in the 1980s the top began to pull away from everyone else, and in the first decades of the twenty-first century the very top began to pull away even from the top.31 Even within each major racial/ethnic group, income inequality rose at the same substantial rate between 1967 and 2011, as richer whites, blacks, and Latinos pulled away from their poorer co-ethnics.32 In the quarter century between 1979 and 2005, average after-tax income (adjusted for inflation) grew by $900 a year for the bottom fifth of American households, by $8,700 a year for the middle fifth, and by $745,000 a year for the top 1 percent of households.33

Income trends were especially divergent among men with different levels of education. “Between 1980 and 2012,” reports economist David Autor, “real hourly earnings of full-time college-educated U.S. males rose anywhere from 20% to 56%, with the greatest gains among those with a postbaccalaureate degree. During the same period, real earnings of males with high school or lower educational levels declined substantially, falling by 22% among high school dropouts and 11% among high school graduates.”34

Income inequality was momentarily reduced by the immediate impact of the Great Recession in 2008–2009, but in the ensuing years the trend toward increasing affluence at the very top, coupled with stagnation or worse for the rest of the society, resumed and even accelerated. From 2009 to 2012, the real incomes of the top 1 percent of American families rose 31 percent, while the real incomes of the bottom 99 percent barely budged (up less than half a percentage point).35

The causes of this breathtaking increase in inequality during the past three to four decades are much debated—globalization, technological change and the consequent increase in “returns to education,” de-unionization, superstar compensation, changing social norms, and post-Reagan public policy—though the basic shift toward inequality occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations. No serious observer doubts that the past 40 years have witnessed an almost unprecedented growth in inequality in America.36 Ordinary Americans, too, have gradually become aware of rising inequality, though they underestimate the extent of the shift.

The growth of income inequality—especially the gap between the ultrarich and everyone else—has been widely discussed in the public square in recent years. This growing gap between rich and poor is reflected in many other measures of well-being, including wealth, happiness, and even life expectancy.

Since the 1980s, mortality has declined among college-educated white women but has actually increased among white women with less than a high school degree, largely because of growing differences in economic well-being. The sociologist Michael Hout reports that “the affluent were about as happy in 2012 as they were in the 1970s, but the poor were much less happy. Consequently, the gross income gap [in happiness] was about 30 percent bigger in 2012 than it was in the 1970s.”37

Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked, as shown in Figure 1.3. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school–educated households net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century. Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility, because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward. For example, a child who can borrow living expenses from Mom and Dad can be more selective when looking for a job, whereas a child without a parent-provided life preserver has to grab the first job that comes along. Similarly, family wealth allows for big investments in college without requiring massive student debt that then cramps the choices open to a new graduate.

Source: Survey of Consumer Finance, Federal Reserve Bank,

Less discussed than the growing gaps between affluent and impoverished Americans, but equally insidious, is the fact that the ballooning economic gap has been accompanied by growing de facto segregation of Americans along class lines.38

In Port Clinton of the 1950s, affluent kids and poor kids lived near one another, went to school together, played and prayed together, and even dated one another. These kids received different economic and cultural endowments from their parents, of course, because Port Clinton was not a commune. However, kids (and their parents) had acquaintances and even close friends across class lines. Nowadays, by contrast, fewer and fewer of us, in Port Clinton and elsewhere, are exposed in our daily lives to people outside our own socioeconomic niche. Three different dimensions of class segregation show just how pervasively American society has become divided along class lines during the past forty years.


Neighborhoods are important sites of growing class segregation. The sorting of households into distinct neighborhoods by income was significantly higher in 2010 than it was in 1970.39 More and more families live either in uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor neighborhoods, as figure 1.4 shows, and fewer and fewer of us live in mixed or moderate income neighborhoods. This geographic polarization was made possible by the growth of suburbs and the expansion of the highway system, which allowed high-income families to move away from low-income neighbors in search of large lots, privacy, parks, and shopping malls. This class-based residential polarization has been accelerated by the growth of the income gap and (ironically) by changes in housing legislation that enabled more affluent minority families to move to the suburbs.

Source: Census Bureau data, as analyzed by Kendra Bischoff and Sean F. Reardon, “Residential Segregation by Income, 1970–2009,” in Diversity and Disparities: America Enters a New Century, ed. John Logan (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2014).

So while race-based segregation has been slowly declining, class-based segregation has been increasing. In fact, the trend toward class segregation has been true within each major racial group, so affluent and impoverished black (or Latino) families are less likely to be neighbors now than they were 40 years ago.

Earlier in this chapter we mapped the increase of class-based segregation on either side of East Harbor Road in Port Clinton, and in subsequent chapters we shall see how exactly this same process—a kind of incipient class apartheid—has worked itself out in towns and cities across the country. It is a process that has powerful consequences for whom our children encounter in their daily lives—both in school and out, in terms of both peers and potential mentors, as we shall see in Chapter 5. Whether we are rich or poor, our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us.


Since the 1970s, increasing class-based residential segregation has been translated into de facto class-based school segregation. Schoolchildren from the top half of the income distribution increasingly attend private schools or live in better school districts. Even when poor and wealthier schoolchildren live in the same school district, they are increasingly likely to attend separate and unequal schools. And often within a single school, AP and other advanced courses tend to separate privileged from less privileged kids. Later on, kids from different class backgrounds are increasingly sorted into different colleges: for example, by 2004, kids from the top quarter of families in education and income were 17 times more likely to attend a highly selective college than kids in the bottom quarter.40

Once again, this educational segregation has consequences far beyond the classroom, in terms of friendship networks and other social resources. As we have already seen, in Port Clinton in the 1950s kids from all sorts of backgrounds attended the same classes, played on the same teams, and went to the same parties. Today, however, even though Chelsea and David live only a few miles apart, they are unlikely even to encounter each other. Educational segregation is so important that we will devote an entire chapter to it (Chapter 4).


People mostly tend to marry others like themselves, but the degree of intermarriage across various social boundaries changes over time. For two reasons, intermarriage rates are useful indicators of how strict boundaries are in social life. First, we mostly marry people that we’ve met. Therefore, the more permeable a boundary (for example, in neighborhoods or schools), the more likely that young people will meet mates on the other side. Second, a high intermarriage rate implies that interaction across that boundary will be more frequent in the future, at least within extended families. In short, high intermarriage rates today imply low social segregation yesterday, and still lower social segregation tomorrow. In recent decades, for example, increasing religious and racial intermarriage has reflected and reinforced the gradual lowering of religious and racial barriers throughout American society. What about intermarriage across class boundaries?

Trends in marriage across class lines throughout the twentieth century turn out to mirror almost precisely the Great U in income inequality.41 During the first half of the century, marrying outside one’s own social class became steadily more common. After mid-century, however, that trend reversed itself. In the second half of the century Americans increasingly married people with educational backgrounds similar to their own, with the most educated especially likely to marry one another.42 In other words, as the gap between rich and poor narrowed in the first half of the twentieth century, more and more Romeos and Juliets jumped across, but as the economic and educational gulf has widened in more recent decades, fewer and fewer people are finding partners on the other side.

The decline in cross-class marriages has implications for the composition of extended families. Two generations ago, extended family gatherings might bring together small businessmen and manual workers, professors and construction workers, but the ripple effects of increasing endogamy (marrying within your own social class) ensure that one’s kin networks today—and even more, tomorrow—are likely to be from the same class background as oneself, further reducing cross-class bridging. Fewer and fewer working-class kids will have rich uncles or well-educated aunts to help them ascend the ladder.

Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages (and probably also civic associations, workplaces, and friendship circles43) means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility—college-going classmates or cousins or middle-class neighbors, who might take a working-class kid from the neighborhood under their wing. Moreover, class segregation means that members of the upper middle class are less likely to have firsthand knowledge of the lives of poor kids and thus are unable even to recognize the growing opportunity gap. One reason, in fact, for including life stories of young people in this book is to help reduce that perception gap—to help us all to see, in the words of Jacob Riis, a social reformer during the previous Gilded Age, “how the other half lives.”44


To what extent has the American Dream of a fair start for everyone in fact been characteristic of American history? The answer to that question turns out to depend in part on the standard of comparison—the myth of perfectly open upward mobility, the reality of our own past, or the reality of similar countries. It also depends on the important distinction between absolute and relative upward mobility.

In a growing economy with rising educational levels, everyone could in principle do better than his or her parents in absolute terms, even if the relative standing of every family remained unchanged—if the children of college graduates got postgraduate degrees, for example, while the children of the illiterate graduated from elementary school. In such a world, a rising tide would lift all boats, even if no one ever moved from a dinghy to a yacht, so that relative mobility was zero.

Conversely, even if the economy as a whole were stagnant, in a system of perfect social mobility the more capable and ambitious children of lower-class parents on their way up would pass the ne’er-do-well scions of upper-class families on their way down. Such a world would have equality of opportunity, because where people ended up would not depend on where they started in life. So a society might have low absolute mobility but high relative mobility, or the reverse.

Over the grand sweep of history, relative mobility accounts for only a small portion of total mobility experienced by individuals across generations, whereas absolute (or structural) mobility accounts for most of it. During periods of high growth in income and education, or thinning out of manual occupations, many people from lower-class backgrounds will experience absolute upward mobility, regardless of changes in relative mobility.

In principle, of course, a society might have both high absolute mobility (a rising tide lifting all boats) and high relative mobility (dinghies doing even better than yachts). My classmates in Port Clinton in the fortunate 1950s and 1960s benefited from exactly that happy state of affairs, and scholars have identified the same pattern nationwide.45 The underlying issue raised in this book is whether, by contrast, American youth now have the worst of both worlds—low absolute mobility and low relative mobility.

Most empirical studies of social mobility in America prior to the twentieth century focused on absolute upward mobility among white men, and used the national myth of perfect mobility as the standard of comparison. In other words, they asked how many upper-class men were strictly self-made—and the answer is “relatively few.” In that sense, these earlier studies ended up debunking the national myth, because mobility seems never to have been as great as the rags-to-riches narrative implies.

On the other hand, careful statistical comparisons by historians suggest that economic growth and successive expansions of the educational system did allow significant absolute mobility, perhaps especially in the first half of the twentieth century.46 In the decades after World War II, as I have said, absolute mobility (and to some extent even relative mobility) seems to have been unusually high, because economic growth and educational expansion allowed exceptional upward mobility.

The evidence now suggests, however, that absolute mobility has stalled since the 1970s, because both economic and educational advances have stalled.47 Much recent public commentary asserts that relative social mobility in America has fallen in the past quarter century as well, though hard evidence for those claims is weaker.48 In other words, Americans believe that income inequality has increased in recent years, and they are right about that. They aren’t so sure that equality of opportunity (or upward mobility) has changed much, and so far they seem to be right about that, too, even if they overestimate the odds of moving from the bottom to the top. But—and this “but” is crucial for this book—conventional indicators of social mobility are invariably three or four decades out of date.

The conventional method of assessing mobility compares a son’s (or daughter’s) income or education when they are in their 30s and 40s with their parents’ income or education when their parents were in their 30s and 40s. The rationale is that not until a given generation reaches early middle age do we know with confidence where they will end up on the socioeconomic ladder. However, that approach necessarily means that conventional measures of mobility are a “lagging indicator” of social change, since even the most recent conventional measures refer to a generation that was born 30 to 40 years ago. In assessing social mobility, therefore, policymakers and citizens who rely on the conventional method are like astronomers studying the stars: they have to contend with an information time lag, and can only see what has happened years or eons ago, not what is happening right now. David and Chelsea will not show up in statistical assessments of social mobility until the 2020s. Their childhood and adolescent experiences, compared with the experiences of my 1959 classmates, suggest that we’ve been veering further away from equality of opportunity for several decades—but if so, we won’t detect that slowing of upward mobility in our conventional measurements for another decade or so. Similarly, if Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor, exploded last night, we won’t know about it for more than four years.

This book adopts a different approach, eschewing the conventional “rearview mirror” method and examining directly what has been happening to kids in the past three decades—the families into which they’ve been born, the parenting and schooling they’ve received, the communities within which they’ve been raised.49 We know that those experiences will inevitably have a powerful effect on how well they do in life. Whatever changes we can detect in these areas will foreshadow changes in social mobility—which, distressingly, according to the evidence I describe in this book, seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American Dream.

Conceptual Note

If this book were a sociological text, we would need to distinguish among different conceptions and indicators of social class, such as occupation, wealth, income, education, culture, social status, and self-identity, and we would have to worry about inconsistencies among these measures—a well-educated but poorly paid librarian, for example, or a barely literate billionaire.50 For our purposes, however, and for the population as a whole, these various indicators are closely inter-correlated, and I know of no instances in which the core generalizations in this book depend entirely on the specific choice of indicator.

Education, and especially higher education, has become increasingly important for good jobs and higher incomes; in the language of economics, the “returns to education” have increased. While education and income are thus becoming more closely correlated, I generally prefer education as our indicator of social class, partly because income measures in most surveys are much “noisier” (error-prone or entirely missing) and because when both are available, education is typically the more powerful predictor of child-related outcomes. Here I follow the example of sociologist Douglas Massey, who operationalizes social class by “education, the most important resource in today’s knowledge-based economy.”51 Another practical reason is that few of the long-term studies on which we are forced to rely have good measures of family income.

For consistency and simplicity, in this book I typically report class breakdowns either by education alone (college degree or more versus high school or less) or by a composite measure of socioeconomic status (based on income, education, and occupational status), depending on what indicators are available for a particular topic or survey. Roughly speaking, the educational attainment of Americans can be divided in thirds, with the top third college graduates, the bottom third no more than high-school-educated, and the middle third with some postsecondary education. So when I speak of kids from “upper-class” homes, I simply mean that at least one of their parents (usually both) graduated from college, and when I speak of kids from “lower-class” homes, I simply mean that neither of their parents went beyond high school. Other breakdowns would produce essentially the same patterns. For the sake of variety, in the text I often use the shorthand of “high-school-educated” or simply “poor” to refer to anyone who has no more than a high school education, and “college-educated” or simply “rich” for anyone with a college degree.