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A friend in need

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Americans worship wealth and bemoan the material possessions they lack. In 2005 (the Year of Rediscovered Class Consciousness?), we seem to be waking up to the material class gaps that have grown for almost 40 years, since 1967.

But attention to this real and important economic class gap could blind us to an equally troubling, less visible gap between the classes -- a social capital gap. ''Social capital" describes the benefits of social networks. Having friends and being involved in groups not only secures jobs -- more Americans get jobs through who they know than what they know -- but improves one's health, education, and happiness.

Relatively recently our hearts were pained by a sea of black and poor victims, trapped on the Gulf Coast pre-Hurricane without an exit. We notice that they were carless and lacked money for bus fare, meals, and hotels. But far fewer notice that the poor were equally trapped by a dearth of these social connections, especially crossing economic lines. Specifically, they lacked affluent friends to give them a ride, lacked contacts to negotiate heavily discounted hotel rates, and lacked out-of-town relatives with extra bedrooms.

Alas, America's rich and well-educated have always had more social capital than the poor, and those divides persist. For example, compared against Americans with incomes over $100,000, the poor (incomes under $20,000) were about half as likely to have befriended a business owner or someone they considered a community leader, and belonged to half as many nonchurch groups.

But recent evidence, discovered by Rebekah Crooks at Harvard using the most reliable long-term surveys of youth, reveals that this civic class gap is recently growing among American youth. Youth volunteering is up since 1995, but the gap in volunteering between children with a college-graduate mother and children with a high-school dropout mother increased by almost 50 percent since 1976. Moreover, church attendance is decreasing, but youth of dropout mothers are exiting religion at more than four times the rate of children with college-graduate mothers. In politics the gap between rich and poor youth is also widening in such crucial areas as interest in government and intent to vote.

While political interest spiked after Sept. 11 for youth of all economic backgrounds, there is no evidence that this class gap is closing. Since the roots of adult civic involvement are nurtured in adolescence, these ominous findings presage a tale of two civic Americas: an increasingly civic ''have" class and a decreasingly civic ''have-not" class.

This is highly alarming in a perceived meritocracy. Class already powerfully predicts many societal outcomes, like admission to select colleges. And Americans already exhibit substantial subconscious racial bias as experiments like the Implicit Association Test demonstrate. Now, poor youth will be paying a triple penalty: fewer economic resources, fewer opportunities due to biases relating to their skin color, and fewer social ties to minimize these impacts.

How can we close the social capital gap between rich youth and poor youth? It's too early to fathom the precise policy solutions. While people have to make friends voluntarily, one can certainly publicize the benefits of such friendships and dramatically increase the opportunity. For example, having youth at age 18 perform a year of mandatory national or community service in diverse groups would likely increase cross-race and cross-class social ties. The military does this well, as do some private youth service groups like City Year.

Moreover, we ought to ensure that in our rush to teach the 3 R's in inner city schools we don't forget to teach the 2 C's (connections and community). Youth, especially poor youth, ought to learn about social capital and understand the social cost they'll pay for not building these ties. Skills are also important: Institutions like churches and unions were cornerstones in teaching poor Americans how to run meetings, petition others, mobilize comrades, and build lasting friendships. Given the declines in union membership and church-going among poor youth, we must find other settings to cultivate such skills. And we ought to offer fun at-school and after-school programs that build stronger social ties among poor youth and between poor youth and better-off youth. These ties may one day, in the face of tragedy, be the difference between life and death.

Poor youth may never develop social ties as strong as the affluent, but we should ensure that we don't send poor adolescents to life's starting line with weights around their ankles.

Thomas H. Sander is executive director of the Saguaro: Civic Engagement in America Project at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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