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Washington DC - Today three dozen community foundations and other funders released the largest-ever survey on the civic engagement of Americans, laying the groundwork for a multi-year effort to rebuild community bonds.
The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey of nearly 30,000 found that levels of civic engagement — how much residents trusted others, socialized with others, and joined with others, among other measures — predicted the quality of community life and residents' happiness far better than levels of community education or income. In the five communities surveyed having the highest trust of others, 52% of residents gave their community a top rating as a place to live; in the five communities with the lowest levels of social trust, only 31% felt that positively. The survey, moreover, revealed that if other community residents had higher civic engagement, the whole community was happier; if certain community residents were wealthier, those individuals were made happier, but others' level of happiness dropped.
The survey--a national sample of some 3,000 respondents and community respondents in 40 communities nationwide (across 29 states) covering an additional 26,200 respondents--revealed large differences across the 40 communities investigated on everything from joining associations to working with neighbors to fix things, to taking local action for reform. Yet, the Survey also showed an unequal distribution of civic engagement in these same communities. In ethnically diverse places like Los Angeles, or Houston, or Yakima (Washington), college graduates are four or five times more likely to be politically involved than their fellow residents who did not get past high school. In ethnically less diverse places like Montana or New Hampshire, the class gaps in political participation are less than half as large.
"At a time when President Bush began his presidency by asking us to be ‘citizens, not spectators’ and to serve our nation ‘beginning with your neighbor,’ the Survey shows that we have opportunities to work towards those goals through a variety of community civic experiments," said Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: Collapse and Revival of the American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000) and principal investigator of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, a project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
"At the same time, quite apart from increasing the level of civic engagement in American communities, we need to attend to its social distribution," continued Professor Putnam. "In some communities, the bank president, the bank teller, and the bank janitor all turn out for community activities, but in other communities only the president does."
In a historic partnership, the community foundations (in concert with a few private funders) releasing the survey are embarking on efforts to rebuild levels of connectedness in their communities, as community catalyst and funder. Community foundations are private philanthropic organizations governed by a cross-section of their community’s leadership. Within their specified geographical area, they raise and manage permanent local endowment funds, distribute grants, and mobilize leadership and organizational resources to address community needs and opportunities.
"While previous research measures trends in civic engagement over time, the Survey is useful to analyze differences in civic engagement across the country. The survey maps the relative strengths and areas for improvement in communities’ civic behavior and sets a baseline against which future progress can be assessed in another survey several years hence," said Professor Putnam. "It represents an extraordinary, enormous trove of data for policy makers, researchers and community builders."
The communities will structure their efforts around the revelations of the survey, which disclosed 11 dimensions of social capital covering: trust, political engagement, giving and volunteering, faith-based engagement, informal socializing, involvement in associations, civic leadership, diversity of friendships, and equality of civic participation.
[Summaries of the relative performance of the 40 communities on these dimensions is given at www.cfsv.org/communitysurvey
"These community foundations and other community builders conducting ‘community physicals’ are engaged in one of the most important efforts ever to strengthen our communities. America needs nothing less than a sustained, broad-based social movement to restore civil society and civic participation," explains Professor Putnam.
The Survey also disclosed two very large challenges and opportunities across all the communities sampled:
The Opportunity and Challenge of Faith-Based Civic Engagement
Even without the new Bush administration’s recent push, faith-based participation and affiliation are widespread in America, particularly in the South and Midwest. Eighty-eight percent of the national respondents reported some religious affiliation and 84% of the national sample agreed somewhat or agreed strongly that religion was very important to them. Lower levels of respondents were actually members: 58% of the national sample were members of a local church, synagogue or other religious or spiritual community. Some 45% of national respondents reported religious activities almost weekly or more frequently.
Throughout, blacks showed greater religiosity than non-Hispanic whites; Hispanics showed greater religious affiliation and church attendance than whites but lower levels of membership and lower levels of participation in religious activities outside of services. Ninety-one percent of blacks and 93% of Hispanics reported religious affiliation versus 88% of whites. Fifty-one percent of blacks attended religious services almost weekly or more often versus 48% of Hispanics and 43% of whites. Sixty-four percent of blacks in the national sample were members of religious communities versus 59% of whites and 43% of Hispanics. Forty-seven percent of blacks participated in religious activities other than religious services as compared to 41% of whites and 31% of Hispanics.
The survey found big differences by age with respect to religion. Younger respondents (18-34 years of age) were far less likely to be Protestants than older respondents, and far more likely to be everything else.
This high level of religious involvement offers myriad opportunities:
Americans are more likely to trust people at their place of worship "a lot" (72%) than they are to trust people they work with (53%), neighbors (49%) or people of their own race (31%).
Involvement in religious communities is among the strongest predictors of giving and volunteering both for religious and secular causes. Religious people in short are great at "doing for."
Religious involvement is positively associated with most other forms of civic involvement. Even comparing people of comparable educational levels, income, and so on, religiously engaged people are more likely than religiously disengaged people to be involved in civic groups of all sorts, to vote, to be active in community affairs, to give blood, to trust other people (from shopkeepers to neighbors), to know the names of public officials, to socialize with friends and neighbors, and even simply to have a wider circle of friends.
Religious involvement is less biased by social standing than most other forms of civic involvement. Poorer, less educated Americans are much less likely to be involved in community life than other Americans, but they are fully as engaged in religious communities.
Religiously engaged people have, on average, a more diverse set of friends than those who are less engaged in religion.
On the other hand, the survey suggests that the special involvement in communities of faith brings with it some challenges:
Religious involvement is sometimes associated with intolerance: for example, favoring banning unpopular books from libraries, antipathy to equal rights for immigrants, lower levels of support for racial intermarriage and lower levels of friendships with gays.
Religious involvement is uncorrelated with support for social reform groups.
Greater religious participation is associated with lower levels of participation in boycotts and marches.
"For all that faith organizations contribute to community life, organized religion is – and always has been – controversial, especially when it spills out from behind the church doors and into the public sphere. Religion can heal divisions, to be sure, but it can also exacerbate them. Religious exhortations can reduce tensions, but also increase them," said Professor Putnam. "So from a civic point of view, the special challenge associated with religious involvement is to encourage greater tolerance for minority viewpoints and greater sensitivity to imperatives of social reform. However, the survey shows that faith-based communities have some matchless strengths as sources of civic engagement.
The Opportunity and Challenge of Diversity
As in earlier eras in American history, America is now becoming a more diverse society. Just as the arrival of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at the turn of the last century roiled our large cities in the short run and enriched our nation in the long run, so now many of our communities now face the challenges and opportunities associated with rapid growth of racial and ethnic minorities.
Generally speaking, Americans seem open to this new diversity, which brings opportunities:
The survey found high levels of tolerance, probably partly due to changed mores and partly due to changing American views: only 22% of whites expressed opposition to a close relative marrying a black, and 18% of Hispanics opposed this. Having a close relative marry a Latino or Hispanic was even less controversial: only 12% of whites and only 9% of blacks opposed this. Only 11% of whites opposed a close relative marrying an Asian, and only 10% of blacks and 12% of Hispanics opposed this. Similarly, 10% of blacks and 10% of Hispanics opposed a close relative marrying a white.
The most diverse communities in the survey report a higher density of ethnic, neighborhood, and self-help groups.
Residents of ethnically diverse communities are more likely to have acquaintances of various races and sexual orientations, as well as a stronger sense of their own ethnic identity.
Diverse communities are also more tolerant: For example, the greater the ethnic diversity of a community, the less likely its residents are to say that "A book that most people disapprove of should be kept out of my local public library."
On the other hand, the survey suggests that diversity also poses some challenges:
trust of others: not only is interracial trust substantially lower in ethnically diverse communities, but residents of ethically diverse communities are less likely to trust others in their neighborhoods, the clerks where they shop, the people they work with, and even (quite remarkably) people of their own ethnic group. In the seven least ethnically diverse communities in our study, 60% of respondents trusted others in their neighborhoods a lot, as compared to only 30% of people in the seven most ethnically diverse places.
connections with others, even informally. Residents of more diverse communities are more likely to be personally isolated; they claim fewer friends and confidants, spend less time socializing with friends and relatives, and have less sense of community with their friends.
participation in politics. People in more ethnically diverse communities are less likely to vote, to participate in demonstrations or protests, or to sign petitions. People at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are especially disengaged from politics in ethnically diverse communities.
connections across class lines. Residents of ethnically diverse communities are less likely to number among their acquaintances someone who has been on welfare, a manual worker, a business owner, a vacation homeowner, or someone of a different religious faith. Although they are more likely to report having an acquaintance of a different race, they are not more likely to have invited those interracial acquaintances into their homes.
equality of civic participation. The civic participation of residents of ethnically diverse communities was more tilted toward participation by the socio-economic rich; more ethnically homogenous communities showed significantly more egalitarian patterns of civic participation by class.
"In some sense, our survey uncovered the social capital equivalent of the digital divide," Putnam remarked. "Americans lacking access to financial and human capital also lack access to social connections. This lack of connections exacerbates the burden for Americans struggling to advance economically."
The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey
The participating sponsors and communities of The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey are: Arizona Community Foundation (Phoenix); Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta; Forum 35/Baton Rouge Area Foundation; Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham; Boston Foundation; Community Foundation Serving Boulder County; California Community Foundation (Los Angeles); Foundation for the Carolinas (NC, SC) (Charlotte); Central New York Community Foundation (Syracuse / Onondaga Co.); Chicago Community Trust; Greater Cincinnati Foundation; Cleveland Foundation; Delaware Division of State Service Centers/Delaware Community Foundation; Denver Foundation/Rose Community Foundation/Piton Foundation; East Tennessee Foundation; Fremont Area Community Foundation (MI); Grand Rapids Community Foundation; Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro; Greater Houston Community Foundation; Indiana Grantmakers Alliance; Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation (WV); Kalamazoo Community Foundation; Maine Community Foundation (Lewiston-Auburn); Montana Community Foundation; New Hampshire Charitable Foundation; Peninsula Community Foundation /Community Foundation Silicon Valley; Rochester Area Community Foundation (NY); The Saint Paul Foundation; The San Diego Foundation; Walter & Elise Haas Fund (San Francisco); Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan (Detroit); The Winston-Salem Foundation; York Foundation (PA); and Northwest Area Foundation (Bismarck, central Oregon, Minneapolis, North Minneapolis, rural South Dakota, Seattle, and Yakima)
The Survey comprises a national sample of some 3,000 respondents and community respondents in 40 communities nationwide (across 29 states) covering an additional 26,200 respondents. The survey measures everything from levels of giving blood, to hanging out with friends, to participating in various groups and associations, to levels of trust, to participation in group arts and group sports, to the diversity of our friendship patterns.
The survey, averaging 26 minutes, was conducted by telephone using random-digit-dialing during July – November. Interviewing in the national survey and in most of the community surveys was concluded in October. TNS Intersearch, an international survey firm, was commissioned to conduct the interviewing and prepare the data for analysis. Roughly 29,200 people were surveyed. The national sample (N = 3,003) of the continental U.S. contains an over-sampling of black and Hispanic respondents; 501 non-Hispanic blacks and 502 Hispanics were surveyed.
The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey was designed by the Saguaro Seminar and drew upon the lessons learned from a Social Capital Measurement Workshop held at Harvard University in October 1999. The Saguaro Seminar was guided in survey development by a 9-person Scientific Advisory Committee, composed of leading scholars on measuring social capital and on cross-racial social trends.
The Survey builds off of two comprehensive efforts: the work of Professor Putnam and strategies for civic revitalization outlined in Better Together, a recent Saguaro Seminar report. The work of Professor Putnam details how markedly civic ties have weakened over the last generation and the price that Americans pay for these frayed ties in the quality of education, physical health and happiness, community safety, the responsiveness of democratic institutions of government, and economic development. Better Together is an accumulation of three years of dialogue among a diverse group of thinkers and doers -- details promising strategies for increasing our social capital through faith-based efforts, schools and youth, the workplace, politics, and the arts.
[The report is available online at: www.bettertogether.org.]