In lonely U.S., it's time to 'reinvent' community

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For most of the 20th century, says “Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam, America was a nation of joiners. From 1945 to 1965, the Lions and Elks Clubs, the Boy Scouts and bowling leagues nationwide saw a notable increase in membership.

That leveled off and began to decline toward the end of the century, when people also started holding fewer dinner parties, eating together less often and getting together for card games and other social activities less frequently. This matters, says Putnam, who was at Penn Feb. 6 to give the Goldstone Forum lecture, because these social networks have great benefits for our health, well-being and communities.

Social networks add years to our lives, provide connections for job-hunters and encourage us to bond with those who are like us, or bridge the divide with individuals who are different. Social capital, said Putnam, comprises the collective value of all of these networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for one another. “Places that have social capital are, in general, nicer places to live,” said Putnam.

They are also more healthy for children. In communities with a great amount of social capital, he said, there are lower rates of teen pregnancy, better education outcomes, lower crime rates and more honest government.

Putnam, who is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, explained that membership in clubs is a reliable way to estimate the rise and fall of social capital, and this was the approach he used in his landmark book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” In databases of consumer preferences and habits, he discovered that about 23 percent of Americans attended public meetings in 1973; by the end of the century, that number had dropped to 10 to 11 percent. He found similar falloffs for attendance at dinner parties and club meetings.

At the Feb 6 event Putnam tested the civic pulse of the room, asking how many in the audience had participated in community meeting or civic activities. When a majority of the audience raised its hands, Putnam joked, “This is probably the most civic room in America.”

At his prompting, audience members suggested “culprits” that have harmed social capital, including urban sprawl, longer working hours and television. Putnam pointed out that, on average, Americans are actually working fewer hours, though since women entered the workforce in the 1960s men “haven’t picked up the slack.” Television, said Putnam, “is awful for social connections. Most Americans watch ‘Friends’ rather than having friends.”

Audience members asked Putnam about the effect of the iPod on social capital (“[it is] technology that allows us to get exactly what we want—alone”) and the importance of brick and mortar buildings on communities. Putnam noted the rapid expansion of the media room in home design, as well as the migration of the porch from the front to the back of the house and the virtual abandonment of the living room. “What I believe is, it matters a lot,” said Putnam.

Putnam also discussed some of the social capital success stories included in his latest book, “Better Together”—about organizations that are trying to connect people again. Putnam discovered that people joined Saddleback, the mega-church in Lake Forest, Calif., because of two clear organizing principles: the church has a very low barrier to entry and small niche groups exist within the huge, 30,000 member organization to anchor members in the larger community.

“We need to reinvent newer forms of connection,” said Putnam. “Last time, the answer was clubs. [This time] the answer may not be clubs.”

Originally published on February 23, 2006