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Our Separate Ways

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Let other social scientists fret over the national debt, the welfare state, the cost of health care in America. Robert D. Putnam is worried about bowling leagues. Since 1980, says Putnam, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, the number of bowling leagues in America has decreased by 40 percent—despite a 10 percent increase in the number of bowlers.

Curious. But so what? The disappearance of league bowling would not be meaningful, says Putnam, 54, were it not for an alarming, four-decade-long decline in American associations—the PTA, the Elks, the NAACP, garden clubs—of all kinds. “We’re connecting less,” says Putnam. The result has been a depletion of “social capital”—a term he uses as a measure of civic life and public trust. Says Putnam: “If you asked Americans a generation ago, ‘Do you trust other people?’ two-thirds said yes. If you ask Americans the same question today, two-thirds say no. “Putnam’s startling observations have caught the eye of President Clinton, who invited him to Camp David in January 1995. Recently he also met with “other presidential hopefuls”he declines to name.

Reared in Port Clinton, Ohio (pop. 5,000), Putnam got an early taste of civic participation as a member of a church choir. A 1963 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Swarthmore College, he received his Ph.D. from Yale. Since 1993 he has been director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Residents of Lexington, Mass., Putnam and his wife, Rosemary, 55, a special education teacher, are the parents of Jonathan, 28, a lawyer, and Lara, 26, a graduate student in Latin American studies. Putnam talked with correspondent Nancy Day at his weekend house in New Hampshire.

Less participation in the PTA might indicate indifference to our schools, but what’s the big deal with bowling leagues?

Well, even though most of the time you’re sitting in the semicircle of chairs at the end of the alley drinking beer and gossiping about the O.J. trial while waiting your turn, you’re also occasionally discussing the local bond issue or whether or not the garbage is being picked up.

That kind of face-to-face conversation about community affairs with people you know is what we’re missing. It’s been replaced by talk show conversations in which Ted from Toledo calls up and vents his spleen. I don’t know Ted from Toledo. And Ted isn’t really taking responsibility for his views; we’re not really having the kind of conversation you have with a friend you see regularly. That’s why even bowling leagues can be sites of democracy and produce social capital.

What is social capital good for?

Social capital makes communities more effective. Take schools. If you’re worried about the quality of your local school, evidence suggests that an increase in parental involvement will be more effective than a comparable increase in spending.

Or crime. You could increase by 10 percent the number of cops on the beat or you could increase by 10 percent the number of neighbors who know one another’s names. When neighborhood residents recognize each other, they’re more likely to call the police if they see a suspicious-acting stranger. Cops and teachers can’t do their jobs well without social capital in their communities.

Aren’t some membership organizations growing?

Yes, but it’s important to look at the type of organization. For example, I belong to the American Association of Retired Persons. With 32 million members, it’s one of the largest, fastest-growing organizations in the world. But my total membership activity each year takes 36 seconds—the amount of time it takes me to write a check. Membership in organizations in which joining means moving a pen is rising. Membership in groups that require being someplace and knowing another member is declining.

What led you to focus on community groups?

For 20 years I studied local governments in Italy, looking at why some were very effective and others were disasters. Initially, I thought factors such as wealth of the community, level of education and political parties might explain the differences. But the crucial factors turned out to be the number of choral societies, football clubs, Rotary clubs and hiking groups in the town. Tell me how many choral societies there are in a community in Italy, and I’ll tell you, plus or minus three days, how long it takes the government to reimburse citizens’ health bills.

Why are Americans dropping out?

There are a lot of plausible reasons: People feel busier, it’s true, but really busy people tend to be more engaged than most of us in community life. The two-career family is another suspect. But the downturns aren’t limited to working women. What’s interesting about the decline is how uniform it is across all parts of American society. Beginning with the generation of kids raised in the ’50s, each subsequent generation has become less and less engaged. It’s as if some mysterious X-ray zapped Americans who grew up during the ’50s and afterward.

What was it?

I think the prime suspect is television. In 1949 fewer than 5 percent of American homes had a TV By 1959, 90 percent owned one. The number of hours Americans spend in front of the television has been rising steadily to the current 4 hours per day. Studies have shown that the more hours people spend watching television, the less they trust each other—and the less they vote. Television has distanced us from our neighbors.

How can we increase community involvement?

It’s a tough question. Turning off the TV 1 hour a day would be a start. Turning to your neighbor or workmate and saying, “Hey, let’s get together this evening,” would be another good idea.

But habits of connecting with other people begin early. At home, parents can encourage their children to get off the couch and into community activities. Schools can also play a role. If kids join the debating society or the band, they’ll begin to learn the habits of democracy. All of us need to find ways to connect across racial, class and other lines.

Mightn’t the Internet, with its chat groups and forums, be taking the place of traditional membership groups?

I don’t like the idea of being a cultural grouch, but the Internet is not a panacea. Face-to-face connections are clearly more effective for building trust. Knowing the person you’re talking to and taking personal responsibility for your view are crucial to having a conversation about public affairs.

Are you encouraged by the interest of Politicians in this issue?

Very much so. One reason political conversation in this country has become so snarly is that we’ve lost the habit of connecting with people who don’t agree with us. I think the political candidate who can help us reconnect with one another will gain a big advantage. It’s a winning idea.