‘I was on the subway the other day,” a dinner companion observed, “and the subway conductor said, ‘Please let your neighbor off first.’
“I was stunned,” the New Yorker observed. “We don’t think of each other as neighbors.”
The occasion for the observation was a gathering marking the publication of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D. Putnam. 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.”
Exploring “how this transformation happened, why it matters, and how we might begin to alter the cursed course of our society” is the purpose of this book.
Putnam quotes Brookings scholar Isabel Sawhill, who cautions that “Generalizations are dangerous; many single parents are doing a terrific job under difficult circumstances.” However, Sawhill continues, “on average, children from single-parent families do worse in school and in life.” Telling the truth is not incompatible with compassion, and we are doing no one any favors by refusing to face facts. In fact, children are suffering. And so is the future of our country — for everyone.
One of those facts is this: Mom and Dad make for opportunities. “In the upper, college-educated third of American society,” Putnam writes, “most kids today live with two parents, and such families nowadays typically have two incomes. 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 [and] 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 stop arguing and start doing what we can, each of us. He says this as one who is invested, speaking emotionally about those who suffer and struggle on account of “the bottom falling out.” In Our Kids, he gives a detailed picture of what goes wrong for those on the lower end of the opportunity scale, as he introduces some of the people in Port Clinton today.
“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 it’s 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, above all, he wants people to realize, to really truly realize what the problem is: “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,” Putnam says. If you think that helping other people’s kids is going to hurt your kids, he argues, you’re wrong. “Our country will be richer, not just spiritually, but economically, if we invest in poor kids.”
And this is not simply a matter for politicians. The first person you notice when Putnam starts talking is his beloved wife, Rosemary. They have been together since she asked him to a Sadie Hawkins dance at Swarthmore five decades ago.
If we each mentored one child of a different background, we could become the bridge that spans the opportunity gap, Rosemary Putnam tells me.
A retired teacher, Mrs. Putnam does the work that will solve the problems her husband writes about. Robert Putnam is quick to tell you that she’s the “doer” — “the true social capitalist in the family.” The complementarity between the two — and the important work they both do — underscores how we all have our roles. And he has taken on the task of challenging the conscience of a distracted country, where we are too busy debating things that we could, like Rosemary, just go ahead and tackle. Putnam tells us of the motto on their refrigerator door: “One hundred years from now, it won’t matter . . . how much I had in my bank account. . . . But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.” Putnam shows us the numbers, and reminds us that the treasures of our country are the heroes who look around and share what they know, and do what they can to help. Because they want to be good, sure, but it also happens to be smart and productive for everyone. Maybe just one subway seat at a time?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.