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There is much to complain about in America today, from grotesquely high levels of inequality to decaying infrastructure to the still potent aftereffects of the Great Recession. It seems like we should be able to do better — much better. Curiously, however, quite a few progressives seem to think that “better” means “just like the good ol’ days.” Holding up the 1950’s as a model society appears to be particularly in vogue, judging from some recent writings by prominent progressives.
This is sentimental hogwash. The Mad Men era was in no sense an idyllic progressive past, and it does violence to the task of envisioning a better future to assume otherwise.
The latest example of 50s nostalgia comes from Robert Putnam, one of the nation’s most respected social scientists and author of the best-selling book Bowling Alone. Writing in the New York Times, Putnam gives us a depressing portrayal of what has happened to his hometown of Port Clinton Ohio since 1959, the year that he graduated from high school. According to Putnam, it’s been pretty much all downhill for Port Clinton for the past five decades. What was once a vibrant community where well-paying jobs were widely available in the local factory, where high school students could aspire to an affordable college education and middle class lifestyle regardless of their class background, and where, above all, people cared for one another, has been gradually destroyed by the closing of the factory that was the town’s major employer, lack of job opportunities, growing economic inequality and the decline of any sense of shared fate or common purpose.
Putnam’s central thesis is that the story of Port Clinton is the story of America over the past fifty years. The loss of well-paying blue collar jobs, growing economic inequality and a declining sense of common purpose have turned the American dream into something closer to an American nightmare for millions of people. It’s a tale that undoubtedly rings true to many who have tried making it in post-financial collapse America.
There is no doubt that many Americans have been suffering from the effects of high unemployment and stagnant wages in recent years and that small factory towns like Port Clinton have been especially hard hit. But a closer look at the evidence shows that Putnam’s portrayal of America in the late 1950s as a land of economic opportunity and common purpose is one-sided at best and that, in many respects, America today is a much better, more open, more just and considerably more affluent society than America in 1959.
Incredibly, Putnam’s nearly rhapsodic portrayal of American life in the 1950s completely ignores the pervasive effects of racism, sexism, and religious bigotry. He briefly mentions the two African-American students in his graduating class who managed to overcome racial prejudice and go on to graduate from college and attend graduate school. But very few African-American students in the 1950s were so fortunate. The vast majority attended inferior segregated schools and could look forward to menial jobs traditionally reserved for blacks if they could find jobs at all. Only about one in five would even graduate from high school and less than one in twenty would graduate from college. And in the southern states, where the large majority of African-Americans lived, segregation backed by intimidation and, when necessary, violence, was still horrifyingly omnipresent. Very few black people could vote, eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as white people.
Women, too, faced a hostile environment in the 50s if they aspired to any career other than mother and housewife. White women were about half as likely as white men to graduate from college. If they managed to matriculate, the careers open to women were generally limited to traditional female occupations such as nursing and teaching, which paid far less than those reserved for men. Female doctors, lawyers, college professors and business executives were almost unheard of.
One additional obstacle preventing women from achieving greater success in school and in the workplace in the 1950s was the extraordinarily high rate of pregnancy among teenage girls. Teen birth rates reached record levels in the fifties, peaking at 96.3 per thousand women in 1957 and falling only slightly to 90.4 in 1959, the year that Robert Putnam graduated from high school. It is safe to assume that very few of these teenage girls went on to finish high school, let alone graduate from college. While the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. remains very high compared with other industrialized countries, it is barely a third of what it was in Putnam’s high school years, a decline consistent across all racial groups. According to the most recent numbers, the teen birth rate was 34.3 per thousand in 2010, the lowest on record.
There are far fewer well-paying blue collar jobs in the United States today than there were in the 1950s. That’s not just because labor unions are much weaker; there are just far fewer blue collar jobs of any kind due to increased mechanization and labor productivity as well as the outsourcing of many of those manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labor. But the loss of low-skill blue collar jobs is not entirely a bad thing. Some of those jobs — think the mining sector — were extremely dangerous, as evidenced by high rates of accidents and serious health complications. Lax or nonexistent government regulations certainly contributed to those high rates of death, disease and injury. Coal mining alone was responsible for an average of 451 fatalities per year during the 1950s although even that number was down sharply from earlier decades. Thanks in part to much stricter federal regulations, fatalities from coal mining fell to an average of 35 per year between 2006 and 2010. Comparable reductions were seen in other types of mining as well.
Even when those factories and mines weren’t killing or injuring their workers during the fifties, they were frequently spewing pollution into the country’s air and waterways. Before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of major environmental laws in the 1970s, America’s rivers and lakes along with the air Americans breathed were far more polluted than they are now. Port Clinton is located on Lake Erie, which had nearly become a toxic waste dump by the 1960s due to a massive influx of raw sewage and factory effluents from polluted rivers. Today, Lake Erie isn’t fully healed, but stricter environmental regulations have helped restore the Great Lake back to partial health.
Nor were industrial accidents and pollution the only serious health risks Americans faced in the 50s: back then, tobacco was still king. Tobacco companies in those days were still vigorously denying any health risks from their products. Cigarette labels carried no health warnings. Doctors and well-known athletes could be seen promoting smoking on television, in newspapers and on billboards. Over half of adult men and about a third of adult women were smokers in the 1950s and the rate of smoking among women was going up rapidly. Today, with tobacco advertising sharply restricted and health warnings prominently displayed by law tobacco products, barely a fifth of men and less than a fifth of women are smokers.
But if industrial accidents, pollution and tobacco smoke didn’t kill you back in the 1950s, driving the family sedan just might have. 1950s automobiles were great for backseat makeout sessions at the local drive-in, but they were poorly designed in terms of ensuring passengers survived crashes and, of course, almost none of them came equipped with seat belts of any kind. Driving on the nation’s highways was indeed an adventure in the fifties, but not in a good way.
Speaking of sexual mores, it goes without saying that gays and lesbians in the fifties faced almost incomprehensible hostility. Not only were homosexual relationships illegal then, but LGBT Americans who came out of the closet, or were forced out, risked of losing their jobs and being blacklisted for future employment. It’s no wonder that Putnam doesn’t mention any gay or lesbian classmates in his essay. He probably had no idea that he had any.
Let’s not forget the omnipresent risk of global nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis took place only three years after Putnam graduated high school, and it was arguably the closest we’ve ever come to the end of the human race. Nuclear weapons tests were regularly conducted during the 50s in the Earth’s atmosphere, spewing radioactive waste across the globe and contaminating the world’s milk supply with deadly Strontium 90. Middle class families were encouraged to build fallout shelters to protect themselves in the event of a Soviet attack and millions of schoolchildren in the United States, perhaps including young Robert Putnam, regularly participated in air raid drills that bizarrely involved hiding under their wooden desks.
Last but not least, let’s not forget that despite the well-paying blue collar jobs described by Putnam, the U.S. economy in 1959 was certainly not producing a decent standard of living for all Americans. Unemployment had come down from its recession peak of 7.5 percent in the summer of 1958, but the percentage of Americans living in poverty, about 22 percent, was about a third higher than at any point during or since the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In the 50s, unlike today, it was seniors who experienced the highest rate of poverty of any age group. In 1959, over a third of America’s seniors lived in poverty, many because many had to face high medical bills without any health insurance coverage. Medicare would not come into existence for several years, meaning that many of them had to turn to their grown children for financial support. Today, the poverty rate among seniors is less than 10 percent.
Moreover, the typical American was simply quite a bit poorer then than they are today. The most recent Census income data show that median family income was 67 percent higher in 2011 than it was in 1959. And if you compare median income from 2007, before the Great Recession hit — this corrects for effects of the business cycle — the typical family was 82 percent richer than in 1959. To further underscore our relative affluence, consider that in 1959 only about 5 percent of families had incomes of $86,000 or more in today’s dollars. Today around 34 percent do. Looked at from another angle, in 1959 just 20 percent of families had incomes above $56.000; today over half (54 percent) do.
Lack of economic opportunity, growing inequality and a weakened sense of common purpose are serious problems in 21st century America. And addressing these problems will not be easy in the current political environment in which conservatives appear determined to slash or eliminate vital social programs and business regulations. But nostalgia for an imaginary time when things were better is not helpful to this task.
Indeed, the sort of 50s nostalgia that Putnam is engaging in plays directly into the hands of conservatives. They’re the ones who want to take America back to a time before there were laws barring workplace discrimination, regulations protecting workers, and limits on corporations that would freely pollute the nation’s air and water. Progressives do them the favor of pretending that the fifties were America’s golden age. It was not. Progressives instead should concentrate on presenting an attractive vision of the future that can galvanize the new and diverse progressive coalition, most of whom weren’t even alive in 1959.