By Eileen Buzzello
The annual report on Civic Life in America was published recently, and Maine fell a little bit in the Service category dropping from a 34.4% volunteer rate to 32.8%, but rose in rankings from number two to number one in the percent of residents who voted.
Most of the other indicators held steady, but I found myself asking – why should I care?
Other than having a statistic to put on a grant application, does it really make a difference to my quality of life?
First I think you have to understand what is actually being measured. Every month a Current Population Survey (CPS) is taken of about somewhere between 60,000-100,000 households. They are asked a variety of questions and their answers are compiled and provided to the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Corporation for National and Community Service, together with the National Conference on Citizenship, use this information to compile their annual “Civic Life in America” report.
Civic Life is defined by these two partners as “. . . the common thread of participation and building of one’s community”, and the elements they look at are Service, Participating in a Group, Social Connectedness, Political Action, and Connecting to Information and Current Events.
The questions asked in the survey are designed to measure the presence of each element in a community. For example, the Service element of the report is based on questions related to volunteering for or through an organization, and the Political Action element is based on the numbers of residents voting and registering to vote in the most recent national election – along with other things like whether or not they show support for a party or candidate through attending meetings, putting up posters, etc.; buying or boycotting a certain product because of the social or political values of the company that produces the product; or contacting a public official to express an opinion, among other things.
To measure Social Connectedness they ask questions related to an individual’s social network – things like eating dinner with other household members or communicating via the Internet. Participating in a Group is measured by questions regarding membership in a variety of groups – schools, neighborhood organizations, sports associations, service or civic associations. Membership in religious institutions counts – but only if it is something besides attendance at regular services.
The final element – Connecting to Information and Current Events – asks about whether or not the respondents gather their news from television, print, radio – whether actual or internet – as well as from talking with friends or using other internet sources like blogs or chat rooms.
Once you start looking at what is actually being measured it becomes obvious the central premise is that social networks have value – that the reciprocity, information and cooperation associated with these types of networks have specific measurable benefits.
A common theme in all of the things being measured is that they require the individual to step outside of his or her own bubble and interact in some way with others – whether it is directly or through some type of social media.
The collective value of all of these social networks is called social capital – defined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000) as the “. . . connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”
Mr. Putnam went on to found The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America – a program that brought together leading practitioners and thinkers over a period of time to develop broad-scale, actionable ideas to increase social capital. This group found that social capital creates value for the people being connected by the social networks, as well as for bystanders, and went on to find that:
• The more neighbors who know one another by name, the fewer crimes a neighborhood as a whole will suffer.
• A child born in a state whose residents volunteer, vote, and spend time with friends is less likely to be born underweight, less likely to drop out of school, and less likely to kill or be killed than the same child – no richer or poorer – born in another state whose residents do not. (Citing Annie Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Index)
• Quitting smoking or joining a club, it’s a tough call which would improve your life expectancy more. Joining and participating in one group cuts your odds of dying over the next year in half. Joining two groups cuts it by three quarters.
• The best predictor of tax evasion is the number of times annually that one gives the finger to another driver, and social capital is the best variable to successfully predict levels of tax compliance state-by-state.
• If you had to choose between 10% more cops on the beat or 10% more citizens knowing their neighbors’ first names, the latter is a better crime prevention strategy.
• If you had to choose between 10% more teachers or 10% more parents being involved in their kids’ education, the latter is a better route to educational achievement.”
According to The Saguaro Seminar, just as the value of social capital is being increasingly recognized, it is diminishing in the United States. “Beginning, roughly speaking, in the late 1960’s, Americans in massive numbers began to join less, trust less, give less, vote less, and schmooze less . . . A variety of technological and economic and social changes – television, two-career families, urban sprawl, and so on – has rendered obsolete a good share of America’s stock of social capital.”
So, it turns out that I should care after all. It matters if I don’t volunteer and it matters if I don’t know my neighbors’ names. It matters if I don’t stay connected to my family and friends, and it matters if I don’t engage in community activities. It matters if I don’t vote or I don’t regularly listen to news programs, and it matters if I don’t eat dinner with my family. All of these things impact the flow of information, collective action, and norms of reciprocity – the morphing of “I” into “We”.
As I connect more and commit more to my family, my neighborhood, my community, the fabric of trust and tolerance is strengthened, and ultimately I am part of creating a higher quality of life for myself and the rest of my community.
As The Saguaro Seminar so eloquently said “Civic engagement and volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century that’s free to join and miraculously improves both your health and the community’s through the work performed and the social ties built.”
(To get more information on how to increase social capital in your own community, or to get the final report of The Saguaro Seminar, go to www.BetterTogether.org .)
Eileen Reilly Buzzello is an Americorps VISTA and a Featured Blogger.