Americans are Increasingly Alienated from Society and Each Other, New Book by Robert Putnam Concludes

Contact: Adrianne Kaufmann
Phone: 617-495-8290
Date: April 28, 2000

CAMBRIDGE -- Drawing on two huge sets of new data detailing how Americans really live, Robert Putnam shows how we’ve become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and the democratic process — and suggests how we may reconnect and reinvent common enterprise — in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster).
In 1995, Putnam, Harvard professor and director of the John F. Kennedy School’s Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, published a short article in an academic journal, in which he described how league bowling had drastically declined and proposed that this apparently minor phenomenon symbolized a much broader and vitally significant social change. Unexpectedly, the article caught the attention of both the popular media and the political world, provoking both effusive praise and sharp criticism.
Now, after years of exhaustive research, Putnam powerfully validates and deepens his original thesis: that over the past thirty years we have become ever more alienated from one another and from our social and political institutions, and that this disengagement poses a critical threat to our personal health, local communities, and national well-being.
Putnam relies particularly on two previously unexplored archives — the Roper Reports and the DDB Needham Life Style survey — that provide unprecedented data on the personal, social, and political behavior of Americans over the last quarter century. Together, they contain the results of nearly 500,000 detailed interviews covering an astonishingly wide range of information — from how many times the average American votes, volunteers, and goes to church, to how often he or she surfs the Internet, drinks a beer in a bar, or gives another driver the finger. By virtually any possible measure, Putnam found, Americans today are increasingly disengaged, not only from the public sphere, but from informal and private social relations. For example, we spend about 35% less time visiting with friends than we did thirty years ago, and American families have dinner together only two-thirds as often as they did a generation ago.
Individually and collectively, Putnam asserts, we are paying a heavy price for the loss of our "social capital," which is the product of communal activity and community sharing. Social bonds, for example, are by far the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. In terms of measured happiness, getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income; attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income.
Social capital is also a strong predictor of personal heath. If you both smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a close call as to which is the riskier behavior. On the community level, the loss of social capital is reflected in critical ways: higher crime rates, lower educational performance, and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight babies, and infant mortality. Furthermore, American communities vary widely in the amount of social capital available to them. The states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont rank highest on the Social Capital Index, for instance, while Georgia, Mississippi, and Nevada rank lowest.
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Four fundamental questions addressed in Bowling Alone:
1. What has been happening to civic engagement and social connectedness over the past three decades?
Politics and civic engagement. The change is most obvious in the sphere of politics — voting, political knowledge, political trust, and grassroots political activism are all down. Americans sign 30% fewer petitions and are 40% less likely to join a consumer boycott, as compared to just a decade or two ago. But the declines are equally visible in non-political community life: membership and activity in all sorts of local clubs and civic and religious organizations have been falling at an accelerating pace. In the mid-1970s the average American attended some club meeting every month, but by 1998 that rate of attendance had been cut by nearly 60%.
Informal social ties. Equally striking is the fraying of our informal ties with friends and neighbors and relatives. In 1975 the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure is now barely half that. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining.
Tolerance and trust. Although we are more tolerant of one another than were previous generations, we trust one another less. Survey data provide one measure of the growth of dishonesty and distrust, but there are other indicators. For example, employment opportunities for police, lawyers, and security personnel were stagnant for most of this century — indeed, America had fewer lawyers per capita in 1970 than in 1900! But in the last quarter century these occupations have boomed, as we have increasingly turned to the courts and the cops to make others keep their word.
2. Why has this happened?
The likely suspects. Like the murder on the Orient Express, this is a crime with multiple suspects. Some suspects can be exonerated; for example, residential mobility has actually been steadily declining for the last half century. Time pressure, especially on two-career families, is the most notorious suspect, but the evidence suggests that it is at worst an accomplice. Changes in family structure are another part of the story, for more and more of us are living alone, and conventional avenues to civic involvement are not well-designed for single and childless people. Suburban sprawl that has fractured the spatial integrity of our lives is a surprisingly important contributor. Electronic entertainment, especially television, has profoundly privatized our leisure time. The verdict on the Internet is still out. Will its primary effect be to reinforce existing social networks, as the telephone has done, or will it become a virtual substitute for them?
Generational change. Most fundamentally, our nation is in the midst of a generational change that will make the problem worse before it gets better. A "long civic generation," born in the first third of the twentieth century, is now passing from the scene. Their children and grandchildren (baby boomers and Generation X-ers) are much less engaged in most forms of community life. For example, the growth in volunteering over the last ten years is due almost entirely to increased volunteering by retirees from the long civic generation. However welcome this development may be in the short run, it represents not a springtime of civic spirit, but an Indian summer. In short, none of the traditional channels for community connectedness fit the ways younger Americans have come to live their lives.
3. So what? What are the consequences of a decline in social capital?
Living without trust and without social connections is not fun, as indicated by many surveys of measured happiness. But the consequences of social capital and its absence go well beyond warm cuddly feelings.
Child welfare. Children’s development is powerfully conditioned by social ties, both family and community. Communities with less social capital rank lower on a long list of measures of child welfare, and this is not just because such communities are poorer economically or diverse racially. Community and parental involvement improve educational performance even more effectively than higher teacher salaries or smaller classes.
Housing and neighborhood quality. Social capital is a strong predictor of crime rates and other indices of neighborhood quality of life. Good neighbors are better crime fighters than good police. Your economic opportunities are affected not just by who you are, but by who your neighbors are and how well you know them. "Networking" works, so frayed networks mean more poverty.
Health. Social networks and social support are unexpectedly important for health, both mental and physical. Mortality rates are powerfully affected by social capital. Clinically measured depression has increased ten-fold in many advanced nations over the last half-century. Although the origins of this epidemic are not yet clear, the prime candidate is social isolation.
Democracy. The skills and values of democratic citizenship — what de Tocqueville called "the habits of the heart" — are incubated in civil society. The collapse of civic engagement is not just a consequence, but also a cause, of the miasma that has enveloped our politics over the last quarter century. Representative government works better in communities with more social capital. Tax compliance is higher, blood donations are more abundant, and road rage is rarer where citizens are more involved in civic life. American democracy rests on our tradition of civic engagement, and as long as we continue to disengage from one another, our democracy will falter.
The dark side of social capital? Does social capital of an exclusive kind -- such as might be found in the Elks Club or the Michigan militia or the local country club -- reinforce prejudice, discrimination, and inequality? Is there any connection between the decline of community in our time and the equally striking rise of tolerance and libertarian views? Putnam reviews these contentious issues and presents evidence that in fact liberty and equality would be enhanced, not diminished, by a revival of community in America.
4. What can we do about it?
A capacity for self-renewal. One of the enduring qualities of American civil society is its capacity for self-renewal. A century ago, at the end of the Gilded Age, America’s stock of social capital was at a low ebb, reduced by three decades of massive urbanization, industrialization, and immigration that uprooted Americans from their friends, social institutions, and families. But remarkably, faced with this challenge, America righted itself through several decades of fervent social innovation, which became known as the Progressive Era. In fact, most of the pillars of our civic society that endure to this day were erected during that period: the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, the PTA, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Hadassah, the Knights of Columbus, Rotary, most labor unions, the YWCA, Sierra Club, and many others.
Learning from the past. We can learn from the people of the Progressive Era, and the problems that they grappled with, which parallel our own — inequality, political corruption, urban degradation, racial tensions — as we seek to rebuild our own eroded social capital. It will not happen, however, without the concerted creativity and energy of Americans nationwide, and without a firm understanding of the importance of social capital.


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