Sept. 11 caused a significant increase in community-mindedness among Americans, but without concerted efforts to consolidate that increase, it will not last--and the long, steady decline in Americans' civic involvement will continue, said Robert Putnam, PhD, a professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, in a talk at APA's 2002 Annual Convention.
In his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Putnam described how various forms of social connectedness in American life--from participation in local government to family picnics--have declined since their peak in the 1960s. At the convention, he discussed the causes of the decline and the possible long-term effects Sept. 11 may have on American community.
Whether one looks at club membership, church attendance, parent-teacher associations or picnic-going, evidence for the decline in America's "social capital"--the social bonds that make communities safer, healthier and more productive--is unequivocal, said Putnam. "By a surprisingly wide range of different kinds of indicators," he said, "Americans have become steadily more disconnected from one another and from public and private institutions over the course of the last 25 or 30 years."
There is no single reason for the decline; it is, as Putnam put it, a "group crime." The spread of suburbs and television are important factors; the rise of two-career families also may have contributed, though probably less than most people imagine, said Putnam.
The most important factors may not be changes in technology or society, but rather a traumatic event to which 9/11 has often been compared--the bombing of Pearl Harbor--and the long Depression which preceded it. "The group of Americans who came of age before or during World War II, all their lives were an amazingly connected generation," said Putnam. "[They] joined more, went to church more, voted more, schmoozed more, gave more."
"The problem," he continued, "is they did not successfully pass those habits on to their kids, the boomers, and on to their grandchildren. Much of the total aggregate decline in American connectedness year by year is now simply generational arithmetic: Every year we lose another slice of the most connected part of the population."
Immediately after 9/11, many pundits argued that American life had undergone a permanent and fundamental change. Now, many of the very real increases in civic involvement that took place after 9/11 are at risk of fading away, said Putnam. "There is always a spurt in community-mindedness after every local tragedy--after every flood, every earthquake, every snowstorm or every hurricane," he explained. "We know the half-life of those spikes in community feeling after tragedy: It's measured in days after a snowstorm, it's measured in weeks after a bad hurricane." For larger tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing, he added, the spikes may last months or even years, but they are rarely permanent.
The one exception to the pattern in recent history is Pearl Harbor. "What made the effect permanent after World War II was not the images of burning battleships--any more than the images of the planes hitting the building [after 9/11]," said Putnam. Instead, he said, it was the daily practice of contributing to the extended war effort that grew out of Pearl Harbor--like growing backyard vegetable gardens or picking up hitchhiking servicemen--that led to lasting civic involvement. Those kinds of changes in daily life have been absent in the aftermath of 9/11. According to Putnam, "The question that faced us last fall and to some extent still face[s] us today is: Is the spike in connectedness and community mindedness after 9/11 going to melt away like the snows in Buffalo after a few months, or is it likely to persist?"
The window of opportunity for using 9/11 to encourage civic involvement is narrowing, but has not yet closed completely, said Putnam. "We are still in the midst of a period where we could begin to reweave the fabric of our relations to each other," he concluded.
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