Panelists Christine Galvin and Peggy Debien with moderator Alex Thomas. Not pictured: Panelist Larry Hartlaub.
Today Dr. Robert Putnam meets with President Obama. On Tuesday evening, the Harvard professor, 1959 Port Clinton High School graduate and 2012 National Humanities Medal of Honor winner, took time to have a conversation by video conference with a panel of Port Clinton leaders. At Ida Rupp Public Library, Putnam talked about his research and the recent New York Times article “Crumbling American Dreams” that featured Port Clinton. The information for the article was gathered for Putnam’s latest book, “Our Kids”, scheduled to be published in 2014.
The Times article
Putnam’s Times article discussed the loss of connection and community and the widening divide between the privileged and the poor, and created much discussion in Port Clinton. Many of Port Clinton’s civic and education leaders responded that the portrayal was in some ways unfair, in particular the Times’ lead photo of the demolition of the old middle school, as the middle school has been replaced by a new middle school.
The discussion began with Putnam expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to electronically come back to Port Clinton, and thanking the people of Port Clinton who have been “extremely generous” in helping Putnam and his colleague Jennifer Silva with their research. Addressing the criticism, Putnam said that he shares the “unhappiness about that photo”, that he would not have approved its use with the article.
Putnam emphasized that what has happened here and across the country, whether in big cities or small towns, is something like when a tornado hits. It can have devastating effects, but it is not a blame issue.
“I am doing a much larger study on how America had changed. We are going through a period where the lower third of kids in American society are much worse off,“ said Putnam.
Putnam shared the research on poverty in Port Clinton. In 1990, there were very few kids in the area below the poverty level. On Catawba, the poverty level is now 1%, slightly lower than in 1990. More than half of the kids in Port Clinton now live below the poverty level.
“In 1959, I was living in a town and place (and time) when there was a lot of upward mobility,” said Putnam. “That has changed…It is a national problem. Most of the kids born to high school graduates in American live in poverty.”
The discussion was moderated by Alex Thomas of Port Clinton, retired school psychologist, and included panel members Larry Hartlaub, Ottawa County Auditor and 2000 PCHS graduate; Peggy Debien, 1965 PCHS graduate and curator of the Ottawa County Historical Museum; and Christine Galvin, Area Director of United Way in Ottawa County.
Peggy Debien asked, “Are you giving any ideas for solutions to the problem?”
Putnam responded, “That part of the book is not yet written. It is a big problem that took us 20-30 years to get to. There is no quick fix.“ He then shared three key points:
• Early childhood education and talking to kids is the most important single thing. Since 1990 there are fewer and fewer families sharing meals. A predictor of IQ is how often people talk to kids.
• Long term economic stagnation. In adjusted income, the average person in Ottawa County has lower wages than their parents, or grandparents.
• “It takes a village to raise a child. If more Port Clinton folks thought of all kids as ‘our kids’ it would make a difference.”
Chris Galvin asked, “How do young people on both sides of this class divide see this un-rootedness as a problem? Do they see any obligation to children on the other side?”
Putnam answered that what is not a problem in Port Clinton is what has happened in other places throughout the country, that most kids do not know people on the other side. In Port Clinton they do know each other.
Jen Silva added, “These kids on the privileged side feel confident. Kids on the bottom half don’t have anyone to turn to, and end up feeling hopeless and betrayed.”
The purple issue
Larry Hartlaub commented that the Putnam article had sparked a lot of good dialogue that had given him a chance to feel more optimistic. Then he asked, “How do you think it will be going forward?”
Putnam said that in addition to talking with President Obama, he also has discussed and/or is in ongoing conversations with Paul Ryan, former President George W. Bush and Laura, Nancy Pelosi, Jeb Bush and leaders across the country. He emphasized that this is “not a blue or a red issue. It is a purple issue, “and that “everyone agrees that it is a problem. They disagree a ton on how to get there (to the solutions).” Putnam bemoaned that if we had a more rational system, that “people of goodwill on both sides could sit down and work on the problem.”
Debien asked, “Do you have any communities where there are success stories?”
“There is a very interesting study by a colleague where the chances for upward mobility are the greatest in places where the people are the most connected. It is not about wealth or economic development, but about how much people care about each other.”
Galvin asked,” Are there other institutions that can raise the issue?”
Putnam talked about how it is just not a government problem, but that various religious institutions are meeting to discuss that crucial link. Churches are in the position to say that the divide is not fair that “this is a sin.”
Hartlaub asked, “Are there any current programs that are age-specific?”
Putnam shared that one of the best current programs that involves the whole family is rooted with pediatricians. He also said that we need to provide an “on-ramp”, a mentoring program to encourage students to go to community colleges.
Debien asked, “What kind of reaction has there been from your colleagues (about the article)?”
Putnam said that the people who study this field are all in agreement, that the basic things about the divide are not scientifically controversial. Researchers and the general public agree and understand that the article was not about Port Clinton, not about some mistake that Port Clinton has made, but rather that it is an American problem. He added that most Americans think that poverty is about race, but It is not, “The people at the top may be well-meaning people and have no idea that kids are living in poverty in their community,” he shared.
Galvin commented that our community has rich resources of retirees, and that she wants to start working on the problem right away.
Putnam emphasized, “The way you are thinking about the problem is exactly right. I promise you if you have ideas I will talk to President Obama about Port Clinton…Let’s not leave this in Washington…You, Chris, know more about how to fix this than Barack Obama or me.”
Jen Silva, reiterating that the people in Port Clinton were “so willing to help.” She also appreciated the perch.
Taking up the challenge, Galvin said, “I want to call the community together to address what we can do now for ‘our kids’, without waiting.” Galvin’s letter to the editor and the Port Clinton community on how to begin that process follows.
Putnam concluded by again thanking people for the discussion, and by re-iterating, “I hope you can tell that I love Port Clinton.”
August 27, 2013
Letter to the Editor and to the Community,
After Dr. Robert Putnam’s Op Ed appeared in the New York Times and caused a bit of a furor in Port Clinton, Alex Thomas, retired school counselor suggest a community dialogue and made special arrangements for a conversation with Dr. Putnam at Ida Rupp Library. He joined us in a Google Hangout this evening. Alex Thomas moderated the discussion among Dr. Putnam; Jen Silva, Putnam’s research assistant and co-author of their upcoming book, Our Kids; County Auditor Larry Hartlaub; Peggy Debien and me. The public was invited and some interested people came.
Dr. Putnam provided an overview of his research into the crumbling American dream and what it means for our children. He painted a bleak picture of class divisions in Port Clinton and the country.
Each of the panelists came prepared with questions. No one challenged the conclusions Dr. Putnam is drawing. Rather, we asked more probative questions about the current state and the possibilities for changing course. The issue of providing upward mobility for all stretches across political ideologies and is neither a conservative nor a liberal problem.
We talked about our kids and how we have the social capital in Port Clinton and the country to let them know we love them and see their potential.
My mind is reeling and my heart overflowing with ideas of ways our community can tell all the children here that we have their backs. I challenge you to think of the continuum and what role you can play to be sure each child born in Ottawa County has the same opportunities.
• Could you mentor a single mom?
• Could you start a support group for those moms and be a facilitator?
• Would you sponsor a home visiting program where parents are taught to foster good child development?
• Could you take a child to story time at a local library?
• Will you volunteer to read in a local pre-school classroom?
• Would you donate to a project that holds family fun nights once a month with games and food and tips for parents?
• Would you take the training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate for an abused or neglected child?
• Could you give an hour or two a month to mentor a middle school child?
• Do you have a skill, from knitting to working with small tools to sculpting, that you would share at an after-school or summer lunch program?
• Would you provide funds to develop a graduation coach program in Ottawa County schools?
• Can you be a career coach?
• Can a child shadow you on your job?
• Can your business provide apprenticeship opportunities?
• Will you work with a high school student to help her see all the possibilities out there if she develops her own strengths?
• Will you attend one of the community meals held by local churches and introduce yourself to another family?
• Can your civic group sponsor a community pot-luck?
Will you come to the United Way Kickoff for Our Kids on September 6 at 8 a.m. at the Sutton Center and join others who want to do these kinds of things?
Do you want to know more about ways you can be involved?
Do you have other ideas?
Christine K. Galvin
Area Director of United Way in Ottawa County