Factors & Forces

For the past 30 years, researchers have been trying to identify the reasons that America's community bonds are unraveling. So far, Union has escaped the national trends. But is it only a matter of time before "outside pressures" change Union, too?

The answers hold importance for all of us.

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For example, research found that communities with high levels of social capital are better places to raise children-in fact, social capital is more significant than income or racial diversity. Studies also show that educational performance improves when parents and communities are involved – it's even more effective than increased teacher pay or smaller class size. Poverty statistics can't predict neighborhood crime rates as accurately as a look at local social networks. It appears that growing isolation from neighbors and groups may also contribute to skyrocketing rates of depression.

But above all, the concept of a democracy is meaningless without the consent and participation of the people. In America, voting may be the easiest and most common form of civic engagement. But turnout in the highly contested 2004 presidential election was pitiful. The Census Bureau reported that only 66% of eligible people registered to vote, and far fewer actually voted-just 58%.

What is going on here?

In conversations about civic dis-engagement, four central factors get most of the blame: less free time, suburbanized cities, an aging population, and electronic media.

Time

"I just don't have time." That's the most popular excuse for not voting (or volunteering). And yes, Americans are working more hours than ever before. But researchers say this is less important than changes in the typical family structure. Over the past 30 years, single-parent families have become the norm-but public meetings aren't generally designed to be "family friendly."

Geography

Time to carpool?

Just 10 minutes of daily commuting can reduce your social capital by 10%

Geography often becomes an invisible line, inserting physical and emotional distance between: work and home, urban and rural, rich and poor, "us" and "them." For instance, researchers know that a long commute to work automatically reduces a person's social capital. In Union, the mean travel time is 21.1 minutes-over 4 minutes less than the national mean. If people working in nearby towns start thinking of Union as "just a bedroom-community," will the volunteers start to vanish?

Age

Children raised in families that volunteer, are likely to become adult volunteers. But a person's age is an even more important factor than family tradition. In fact, when it comes to all forms of civic engagement, education is the only predictor that's more accurate than age. Look around most communities and you can see that most of the volunteering, joining, and gathering is done by older people. Research shows that people born in the "long civic generation" (1900 to 1935) are the most engaged people in the nation-far more socially involved than their children (the Baby Boomers) or grandchildren (Generation X). The 2000 Census reported that 12.4% of Americans belonged to the "long generation"; in Union, the figure was 20.7%. When Union's elders are gone, will the town have enough dedicated young people to fill the need for volunteers? Only time will tell.

Media

Several studies have found that electronic entertainment is "privatizing" our leisure time. And the worst offender is TV. Before television, leisure time often meant a visit to "the club," a chat with neighbors, or a trip to the library. Today, leisure time is generally enjoyed behind closed doors, alone and isolated. Robert Putnam, an expert on civic engagement, has identified a direct link between civic engagement and the mere availability of mass media. It's worth noting that Union is in a topographically isolated area. For many years, TV signal reception was unusually weak. Then in 1995, analog cable came to town (there's still no digital cable or broadband Internet access). Will future researchers point to that event as the tipping point in Union's history of civic engagement?

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