America in civic decline? Don't believe it

February 05, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

IF WE'RE TO believe the latest reports on the American psyche, things could hardly be worse for us as a people.

Last year Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam's essay on ''Bowling Alone'' -- we're bowling more than ever but bowling leagues have shrunk 40 percent since 1980 -- drew concerned attention across a spectrum running from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich to the popular press.

Documenting precipitous 30-year declines in community groups ranging from the Elks and Kiwanis to the League of Women Voters and parent-teacher associations, from labor unions to Red Cross and Boy Scout volunteering, Mr. Putnam built a strong case that America's stock of ''civic capital,'' built on strong personal associations, is fast eroding.

Today's Americans trust each other far less than the generation of the years immediately after World War II, he reported. He cited broken families, frequent moves from place to place, the entry of women into the labor force, and above all, television, which now occupies an astounding four hours of the average American's day.

Television saps trust

The more people watch television, the less trusting, the less civically engaged they are, according to Mr. Putnam. Precisely the opposite, he said, is true of newspaper reading -- readers are more trusting, more involved. But newspaper reading has declined sharply.

An American nation historically rooted in values of participation and mutual assistance, Mr. Putnam concluded, is now in great peril.

The Chicago Tribune added to the debate with a special series, ''Nation of Strangers.'' As Americans have moved away from traditional cities and towns, series writers Ron Grossman and Charles Leroux note, ''they become detached from one another psychologically and physically.''

Cul-de-sac subdivisions not only separate people by income group but lack warmth or a sense of rootedness. ''We shop miles from where we sleep, we work in an office building somewhere else, and play in yet another location. We are less likely to know or visit with those who live next door.''

But if you really want to be discouraged about today's America, check the unremitting chain of alarmist findings in a new national poll and analysis produced jointly by Harvard University, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post.

''Americans Losing Trust in Each Other and Institutions -- Suspicion of Strangers Breeds Widespread Cynicism,'' ran the Post's lead headline for its series, ''Reality Check: The Politics of Mistrust.''

Fear and worry

Fear of crime, economic insecurity and worry about the future fuel a mistrust targeted most ferociously on government -- which then is depicted as powerless to do much because people have practically no trust in it.

But are such analyses unwarrantably pessimistic? I have to think so. They describe a different America than the country of spirited civic work, proliferating neighborhood-development corporations, urban and youth self-help efforts, efforts at regional strategic planning, that I encounter in my reporting.

Just one example, from beleaguered Detroit: An emergency shelter for the homeless reports that its volunteer ranks have recently expanded to 1,854 -- three-quarters of whom come in from the cities' suburbs.

Nor does a uniformly downbeat analysis sound right to Brian O'Connell, founding president of the Washington-based Independent Sector. He notes (in a recent letter to Robert Putnam) that about 50 percent of American adults -- and a higher percentage of teens -- are involved as active volunteers, with more than half of them giving five or more hours a week to the causes of their choice.

Americans, Mr. O'Connell argues, are willing to stand up and be counted on virtually any issue. ''We organize to fight zoning changes, approve bond issues, oppose or propose abortion, improve garbage collection, expose overpricing, enforce equal rights or protest wars. In very recent times we have successfully organized to deal with the rights of women, conservation and preservation, learning disabilities, conflict resolution, Hispanic culture and rights, neighborhood empowerment. . . .'' His list goes on from there.

Harder to count

Unlike formal organizations such as Elks or PTAs, he says, there are no long-term trend lines or satisfactory ways to count today's remarkable advocacy, self-help and religiously based social-service efforts.

Mr. Putnam argues that many of today's cause groups -- the Sierra Club and the 33-million member American Association of Retired Persons, for example -- require just a few seconds of check-writing time a year, that they're no substitute for full civic engagement. Even counting all manner of organizational memberships, he notes, we belong to about 25 percent fewer groups than we did a quarter-century ago.

Still, our civic decline may not be quite as sweeping as the new lines of analysis initially suggested.

Most important of all, it's in nurturing and growing our new forms of civic association -- from Internet discussion to hospice support groups to citizen crime-control patrols to building friendlier, more walkable neighborhoods -- that a less estranged, more civic America will have to be built.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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