If the worst happens, don’t blame the FBI or the Russians. Blame capitalist individualism, writes Victoria White
ON’T blame the emails. The FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of her private server could push Donald Trump over the line. But this has been coming: for the last 40 years, the US stage has been carefully set, by both Democrats and Republicans, for a president such as Trump.
Starting in the 1970s and gaining traction in the 1980s, a cult of individualism has eaten away at the struts of American social cohesion. It is like an infestation of hungry rats. It has ripped up the dominant American myth that you can be anything you want, if you work hard. It has meant that many young Americans today struggle to afford the standard of living and education their parents had.
If you have American friends and relations, it’s likely you know this already. The Americans at my school were educationally advantaged. They played flutes and trumpets and had been enrolled in ‘gifted’ programmes. Now, many of those same American friends are fearful of the future, whether Trump wins or not. Many of them are impoverishing themselves by choosing private secondary schools for their children and the thought of college fees gives them nightmares.
The statistics are stark. 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 for the top 1%.
In his 2015 book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam, the author of the famous Bowling Alone, sketches out how the opportunity gap between American children born on different sides of the tracks has gotten wider and wider. He says that in the 25 years to 2001, the “achievement gap” between children from low- and high-income families grew by 30% to 40%.
And it has kept growing. In Putnam’s home town, Port Clinton, Ohio, the child-poverty rate has gone from 10%, in 1989, to 40%, in 2013. Port Clinton is in Ottawa County, which Putnam calls the “bellwether” county of the bellwether state of Ohio, which has only voted for the ‘wrong’ presidential candidate twice in 120 years, and has never failed to vote for the successful candidate since 1960.
I’m looking at a 2.5% lead for Tump in the polls of polls today. It makes me feel sick. Sicker still when you read Putnam’s prescient words, written only last year: “Without succumbing to political nightmares, we might ponder whether the bleak, socially estranged future facing poor kids in America today could have unanticipated political consequences tomorrow. So, quite apart from the danger that the opportunity gap poses to American prosperity, it also undermines our democracy, and perhaps even our political stability.”
Putnam shows how an alienated and paranoid society has been fostered by the collapse of social networks among less-advantaged people. Those warm, working-class communities of yesteryear are largely gone. And the role of the working-class man within them is no more.
The so-called ‘man’s wage’ in traditional industries no longer exists to support a family. Now, facilitated by the mass entry of women into the workforce since the 1970s, you need two incomes. But that leaves large questions, posed by Elizabeth Warren in her book, The Double Income Trap, but never really answered by anyone: if you need two incomes to survive, how does a family compete on one income? What happens to lone parents? What happens to families? What happens to that constant presence, and careful guidance, which Putnam shows to be so vital to “our kids”?
The whopping divorce rates we associate with the US mostly belong to the less-advantaged and less-educated, with those who didn’t go to college twice as likely to divorce. The so-called neo-traditional couple has been able to keep it all going. They both work, but the educated mother cuts down on everything else to spend time with her children, while the educated father — who is likely to live with her — makes up the balance.
Meanwhile, the family on one income, or no income, falls further and further away, helped by child tax credits, which don’t go to those who don’t pay tax, and by repressive labour-activation measures brought in during Bill Clinton’s presidency, which encourage lone parents to leave small babies and go out to work. Hillary Clinton has written that “It takes a village to raise a child”, but, according to Putnam, the American village is “derelict”.
By contrast, we’re getting some things right. Putnam comes down heavily against insisting children go to school in their local area, because this has further ghettoised American society and led to spiralling house prices where schools are good. I’ve argued for the policy to be brought into Ireland, but now I question it. With our class consciousness and our obsession with houses, I don’t think we could handle it.
The other thing we’re getting right is providing child benefit. Putnam’s research clearly shows that simply giving struggling families money makes a massive difference, probably because family stress can impair a child’s brain development. An increase in the family’s income by $3,000, or €2,700, annually during a child’s first five years has been associated with higher final exam results and a 20% improvement in earnings in later life. Child benefit provides €1,680 per child, but other benefits, such as family income supplement or domiciliary care allowance, bring some Irish families towards Putnam’s suggested State cash benefit for their children.
There was no increase in child benefit in last month’s budget. In so many ways, we are increasingly subscribing to American individualism.
We have done away with child tax credits and with an equal tax shelter for a stay-home spouse as for a working spouse. The home carer’s tax credit is €1,100 and it is only available to married (or officially cohabiting) couples who pay tax. We should take Putnam’s advice and make the home carer’s tax credit refundable, as a grant, to those who don’t.
We are very close to the ‘pay per play’ policy in US schools, by which the once-universal activities of music and sport are confined to those who pay. Putnam says applying for a “waiver” is like wearing a yellow star. I hope it’s not like that in Irish schools, when you can’t come up with the so-called ‘voluntary contribution’ or pay for the menu of extra activities, which came in to me as an ‘invoice’ on my phone.
I don’t want to wake up next Tuesday morning to greet President Trump any more than you do, but, if it happens, do me a favour: don’t blame the FBI or the Russians. Blame capitalist individualism, which has rampaged through Western societies since the 1980s, and resolve to shut your gate to it.
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