"I was on the subway the other day," a dinner companion observed recently, "and the subway conductor said, 'Please let your neighbor off first.'"
"I was stunned," the New Yorker said. "We don't think of each other as neighbors."
These remarks occurred at a gathering marking the publication of "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," by Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard sociologist and author of "Bowling Alone." In it, he focuses on his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, which, in the late 1950s, was "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 ... 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."
Many of the problems that lower-class kids face stem from economics: "In the upper, college-educated third of American society, most kids today live with two parents, and such families nowadays typically have two incomes," Putnam writes. "In the lower, high-school-educated third, however, most kids live with at most one of their biological parents, and in fact, many live in a kaleidoscopic, multi-partner, or blended family, but rarely with more than one wage earner. Scores of studies have shown that bad outcomes for kids are associated with the pattern now characteristic of the lower tier, whereas many good outcomes for kids are associated with the new pattern typical of the upper tier."
He continues: "Children who grow up without their biological father perform worse on standardized tests, earn lower grades, and stay in school for fewer years, regardless of race and class. They are also more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as shyness, aggression and psychological problems such as increased anxiety and depression. Children who spend part of their childhood in a single-mother home are more likely to have sex earlier and to become young, single parents, re-creating the cycle."
This has been the stuff of political argument, but Putnam, a man from a "modest background" wants us to face facts. He speaks emotionally about some of those who suffer and struggle on account of "the bottom falling out" in Port Clinton, and in his book he gives vivid portrayals of their lives and struggles.
"I want us to start a movement," Putnam says, "in which we worry about all the kids in our community because I think it would be better for all of us, because I think it is morally right, because it would be good for our democracy and because ... in principle it ought to unite all of us. It really ought to. You can hear us want to have a fight about whether its structure or culture. Or whether we should do x or y. Or whether it should be national or local. We can debate that, of course." And we do and should. But, first, he wants people to really, truly realize: "This is the core challenge facing our country. If we don't fix this problem we are not going to be one country."
"Giving every child a fair chance in life is not just morally right, but economically," he writes.
But his argument is not simply a matter for politicians. If everyone mentored one child of a different background, we could be the bridge that works to fill the gap, Putnam's wife, Rosemary, tells me.
Putnam has taken an opportunity to challenge the conscience of a distracted country. He shows us the numbers, and reminds us that we need to be involved. Because we want to be good, sure, but it also happens to be smart and productive for everyone, all that time and sacrifice. Maybe even one subway seat at a time?