Original Writing – Featured Story
By Jasmine Cupp – Schaffner Publications
On March 10, Dr. Robert Putnam, Port Clinton High School alumni and Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, released his newest novel Our Kids which paints a bleak picture of Port Clinton as well as the rest of the nation.
Putnam, who called Port Clinton his hometown in the 1950s, starts his book off by saying “life (now) 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.” This is not necessarily the Port Clinton that most of us call home.
Our Kids focuses on outlining statistics such as in the 1950s only 4% of births existed outside of marriage which Putnam accredits to the strong “patriarchal division of labor coupled with widely shared prosperity that allowed most families to get by on one male income and the strong norm against out of wedlock births so that premarital pregnancy was typically followed by a shotgun marriage.”
The collapse of the family structure in the 1970s is also highlighted in the book. Putnam says that sex and marriage delinked with the advent of the birth control pill and the feminist revolution transformed general and marital norms.
In 2000, the ratio of “divorced to married people was nearly twice as great among high school educated Americans as among college graduates and by 2008-2010 the gap had grown further.”
Putnam’s research also found that “compared to college graduates, high school educated men are four times more likely to father children with whom they do not live, and only half as likely to visit those children.” In 1960 only 6% of children lived with a single parent and now that number has reached over 50%.
“Skills acquired early in childhood are foundational and make later learning more efficient,” Putnam points out in Our Kids. “As the child ages, the brain becomes less able to change.” The framework of a child is formed and developed by the child’s family and then that framework is skewed, the child has less chance of adapting, according to Putnam.
Our Kids goes on to tell stories of Port Clinton children, then and now, and their trials and tribulations of life; some have it easy, some have it hard.
Putnam highlights the gap that is growing nationally between high and low income families. Stanford Sociologist Sean Reardon says “the achievement gap between children from high and low income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.” Many statistics that are outlined in the book demonstrate a scissors gap graph to where problems seen in the past are only being amplified in the present day.
Putnam suggests that in the days of yesteryear, all the children in the community were seen as everyone’s kids; families taking interest in other families’ well-being, parents helping other children, etc. Putnam believes that this isn’t true now in Port Clinton or on a national level. “Everyone in my parents’ generation (from pool shark to pastor) thought of Don and Libby (classmates of Putnam) as “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of David’s (troubled child living in Port Clinton) existence, and even fewer would think of him as one of “our kids.””
When Putnam goes into the specific individual studies, this is where the research seems generalized and somewhat exaggerated leaving Port Clinton a sinking ship representing the American dream.
If the citizens of Port Clinton and eastern Ottawa County are a reflection of the national standard of a lack of community and care for our children, then how can Devin Kohlman be explained? He was child who lived in a small apartment in downtown Port Clinton and became everyone’s child. People throughout the area cared for Devin, helped Devin, supported Devin and shed tears when Devin left. The entire community rallied to support Devin and his family.
“What we are seeing with job listings is that there are good jobs available, the difficulty is finding people interested in the jobs we have,” said Ottawa County Improvement Corporation director Jamie Beier Grant, commenting on Putnam’s comments in Our Kids. “The challenge in Ottawa County, not unlike any other place in the United States, is the need to better communicate the jobs that are available and the skill sets those jobs entail.”
Beier Grant and other organizations, businesses and schools came together to create the Business Advisory Council in Ottawa County to help better steer children in a direction of success utilizing every asset that the county can offer.
Another excerpt from Our Kids talks about the lack of community support, especially for “poorer kids”. “They grew up in an era (referring to people of Putnam’s generation) when public education and community support for kids from all backgrounds managed to boost a significant number of people up the ladder- in Bend, Beverly Hills, New York, Port Clinton and even South Central LA. Those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well.”
“I think Putnam is exaggerating only to draw attention to the need to serve all kids,” said United Way of Ottawa County director Chris Galvin. “We wouldn’t have created the mentoring program if there wasn’t a need or we wouldn’t have created the career pipeline for the Business Advisory Council if we didn’t see a need for the children to see all the options for their future. These things didn’t previously exist in our community.”
“I encourage everyone to read the whole book,” said Galvin, “and see what strikes a chord with you. If there is one message I want to convey in all of this it’s that you can do anything you want to do, you can be anything you want to be and you can do it right here.”
The United Way and The Beacon will be hosting a book discussion of Putnam’s Our Kids at the Ida Rupp Public Library Wednesday, May 13, 6-8 p.m. and Thursday, May 14, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. All are encouraged to read Putnam’s book and attend to discuss.