The first time my spouse and I came to America, the country was roiling with the scandal that became known as Watergate. The fierce, animated kitchen table discussions we were party to served as my introduction to the politics of the country.

Later, not long after Watergate was settled, we emigrated from New Zealand to live in the U.S. By chance, we bought into a street with immigrants from China, Japan, Germany and India along with two Black and five white families. Our collective children played in the cul-de-sac together and put on dreadful plays. Then, and on many cooling summer evenings, the neighbors gathered casually and talked about the trivial to the consequential. In short, I experienced the concept of the melting pot in the real world. I heard all the stories.  

My personal experience as a naturalized American has been immensely fulfilling, but I’ve become uncomfortable over the time I have lived in the U.S. about the growing number, native born and otherwise, who are not finding a place in society. The Social Progress Index, a survey of 163 countries, released Sept. 10 has verified why that feeling has grown. The issues examined are those that contribute to the quality of life: nutrition, safety, freedom, health, education access, etc. The U.S. ranks overall at 28th out of 163 countries and has seen, along with Brazil and Hungary, the biggest decline in our quality of life since 2011. Then we were 19th in the world. If you want to live in a country with a high social-progress score, you have a choice of Norway, Denmark, Finland or New Zealand.

To be sure, our universities are No. 1, but access to a solid public education is ranked at 91 — at a par with Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Most other advanced countries have better sanitation and internet access, and have laws against child marriage. America ranks 100 in discrimination against minorities. Health statistics in the U.S. are similar to those of Chile, Jordan and Albania.

Obviously, this state of affairs has happened over time and under both red and blue administrations. But the current political divide has never been this great or so mindlessly vitriolic in the 50 years I have observed it. This breakdown is driven, in part, by the fact that too many live in Third World conditions. Simply, hungry and insecure people are going to be angry. A quick test of this hypothesis: Try asking anyone in need of help through no fault of their own, and not getting it, how they feel. Or talk to someone who has lost health insurance as a result of the pandemic or will if Obamacare is struck down as unconstitutional.

Where do we start to address these social-progress issues? There are solutions given political will and a more receptive disposition to the “common good” than currently exists. But as neither seem within reach just now, I would like to suggest a version of the “talking on the street to people who don’t look like you” approach. A hallmark of my early neighborhood conversations, which were frequently feisty, was a slow, respectful unfolding of the various points of view offered. It offered considerable understanding.

I have no idea how this could be implemented in the U.S., but a formal version of the approach known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission went a long way in South Africa to bind the apartheid wounds. Something like it is what I hope for the country I have adopted and grown to love. To do less is to risk much.