SWARTHMORE, Pa. — Robert Putnam wants a show of hands of everyone in the room with a parent who graduated from college. In a packed Swarthmore College auditorium where the students have spilled onto the floor next to their backpacks, about 200 arms rise.
“Whenever I say ‘rich kids,’ think you,” Putnam says. “And me. And my offspring.”
The Harvard political scientist, famous for his book “Bowling Alone” that warned of the decline of American community, has returned to his alma mater to talk, this time, about inequality. Not between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but between two groups that have also fallen further apart: children born to educated parents who are more likely to read to them as babies, to drive them to dance class, to nudge them into college themselves — and children whose parents live at the edge of economic survival.
The distance between the two is deeply personal for Putnam, now 74 and launching a book that he hopes could change what Americans are willing to do about children in poverty. He grew up in a working-class Ohio town on Lake Erie where, in the 1950s, poor kids could aspire to Rotary scholarships or factory jobs. He left Port Clinton for Swarthmore, where he met a woman in his introductory political science class who would raise two children with him. They would go on to Harvard. His grandchildren are college-bound, too, or already there, one of them living on the same floor of the dorm where Putnam once bunked.