- One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming
In 224 pages of text, bolstered by 47 pages of notes and 61 pages of references, Michael B. Katz and Mark J. Stern offer a statistically laden portrait of demographic, economic, political, social, and cultural conditions in the United States in 1900 and a century later. "By 2000, everything had changed" (p. 171). To document their case, the pair cite data on population movements and density, [End Page 488] (sub)urbanization, the shift from agriculture to service industries, and the expansion of government, especially at the federal level.
"Yet, for all the differences, similarities joined the two ends of the century," Katz and Stern argue. The beginning and end of the 1900s bore witness to "the first and second eras of economic globalization, linking industries, finance, trade, and people in vast transnational networks whose cumulative impact worked its way into the most intimate domestic matters" (ibid.). Drawing on immigrant labor from diverse parts of the world, globalization created new opportunities and fresh choices over the life course. At the same time work-, ethnic-, gender-, and racially-based inequalities and injustice increased, typically taking on new forms.
Four themes emerge from the cascade of data (pp. 3-5). First, "overlapping inequalities" make America One Nation Divisible. Second, the United States has been diverse geographically, demographically (particularly in terms of race and gender), and personally. Third, claim Katz and Stern, government has contributed profoundly to the contours of social and economic history in the 20th century. Finally, the "intellectual impact of discontinuous change" has given rise to both structural and cultural lags, forcing "fault lines" to be redrawn. To make their argument, Katz and Stern devote a chapter each to "what America was" and "what America is becoming." In between is a chapter on "the paradox of inequality in the history of gender, race, and immigration," and another on "growing up and growing old in a century of family change."
According to the authors, indicators of qualitative changes are as important as measures of quantitative dislocations. "Under pressure from transformative economic and social change, ideas thrown around unreflexively in everyday conversation—public, work, city, family, race, American—had lost their customary meanings" (p. 224). The challenge of defining, much less reducing, inequality, a condition transmogrified yet deeply rooted in structure and mores, ensured "one nation divisible, with liberty and justice for some" (ibid.).
Katz and Stern have an eye for revealing statistics, but their book's resources pale in comparison to the 5-volume compendium of Historical Statistics of the United States under the general editorship of Richard Sutch and Susan B. Carter, published by Cambridge University Press (2006). Similarly, students are more likely than their teachers to gain insights from One Nation Divisible. The book's felicitous narrative lacks the polemical "thick description" of the authors' previous works on U.S. social welfare history. That said, Katz and Stern have given us a work useful to keep close at hand: it is reliable and it ably delineates those historical forces that make American inequality distinctive in its patterns of continuity and change.