Robert Putnam is on a quest for community, but in his recent bestseller Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, he’s looking in the wrong place. Thinking more collectively will not restore America’s depleted “social capital.” We need a revival of human-scale institutions, based on a more realistic understanding of community. For that, we should turn to the late Robert Nisbet, a conservative sociologist who presaged Putnam’s quest, and Alan Ehrenhalt, a senior editor at Governing magazine and an accomplished journalist who supplies us concrete pictures of community in action.
Our Kids is about the expanding opportunity gap facing kids in families with no more than a high school education, typically low-income. But it’s best read as the third installment of what one could call a social capital trilogy, beginning with the landmark 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and continuing with Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2003), which Putnam coauthored with Lewis M. Feldstein and Don Cohen.
Putnam writes in Our Kids that “supportive institutions” have always been critical but “those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well. That is the point of this book.” Using data from Bowling Alone at a recent American Enterprise Institute conference, Putnam presented a series of graphs demonstrating the dramatic decline of associational membership and other proxies of social capital in the second half of the twentieth century, starting around 1964.
In May of that year, LBJ launched the Great Society, touting a vision of social uplift even grander than FDR’s New Deal. The New Deal consisted mainly of Keynesian stimulus measures to save an economy in crisis; the Great Society’s architects sought to spread America’s postwar wealth to all the citizenry, attending not only to economic opportunity, but “happiness” and spiritual wellbeing—including the “hunger for community.” The Great Society was about creating a national community that will enfold “every child,” as LBJ said in his famous University of Michigan speech. (Law and Liberty’s forum discussion on the Great Society speech, marking its 50th anniversary, is here.)
Thus, the steady plunge of American civic vitality began just as the federal government was launching a colossal initiative to increase it. Nisbet would have said this was no coincidence. In response to the sense of breakdown, dissolution, alienation, and yearning for community in academic writing and popular culture, Nisbet argued in The Quest for Community (1953) that families, neighborhoods, unions, churches—human-scale communities constituting the fabric of society—require continual engagement in vital functions to stay vibrant. When centralized, bureaucratic organs subsume these functions they atrophy like muscles from disuse. The “loss of community” in Western culture precipitated governmental absorption of vital functions, which in turn further accelerated institutional atrophy.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam stressed that we cannot infer causation between the decline of social capital and the expansion of the welfare state, but the timing is striking. We must at least acknowledge that despite significantly increased governmental expenditure to combat poverty and expanded access to education since the 1950s, the opportunity gap has ballooned between then and now, and the decline of social capital has continued apace.
Indeed, Putnam has shown empirically and analytically what Nisbet intuited: democratic individualism threatens to erode community—and ultimately the shared prosperity, opportunity, and liberty which justify its existence. Nisbet counseled that the “hunger for community” President Johnson acknowledged springs from deep in the human soul:
The quest for community will not be denied, for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature—needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and continuity. Without these, no amount of material welfare will serve to arrest the developing sense of alienation in our society, and the mounting preoccupation with the imperatives of community.
All this raises a fundamental question: what is community?
Like Putnam, Alan Ehrenhalt has a soft spot for the 1950s and mourns the loss of community. In The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s (1995), Ehrenhalt depicts life in the Chicago neighborhoods of that decade, working-class and middle-class, black and white. These neighborhoods perform the kinds of vital functions Nisbet describes: educating their children, securing the public safety, and providing economic opportunity through locally owned businesses. Black residents of Bronzeville on the South Side face overt racism and exclusion under the Jim Crow system, but they meet adversity by constructing institutions that generate community.
Ehrenhalt doesn’t, however, sugarcoat community; it comes with intrusion from authority figures like parents, other kids’ parents, coaches, priests, and nuns. Authority figures model and enforce conformity to clear standards of conduct. In these neighborhoods, community in fact entails an almost suffocating lack of privacy. Yet Ehrenhalt shows that despite its intrusions, hierarchies, constraints, and imperfections, it provides stability and quite often contentment. He argues this was due to respect for authority and clear limitations that our society has abandoned in favor of ever-expanding individual choice in the economic and social realms. We have chosen choice, and the price is community.
In Our Kids , Putnam offers a portrait of life in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, where “neighborhood solidarity has spiraled downward, and drugs and crime have ravaged the lives of residents.” The scene could not differ more starkly than that documented by Ehrenhalt. The local church is the only institution that helps Lisa and Amy, sisters growing up in Kensington, to barely survive. “Neighborhood inequality” in terms of social networks and trust is among the most distressing forms of inequality in Our Kids.
Putnam has alerted Americans to the decline of social capital in American life and the need to make rebuilding social trust and community an urgent priority. Bowling Alone depicted the decline; Our Kids shows how it acutely impacted poor communities. Addressing the crisis of community doubtless remains among the “great objects” for the West in our time.
So how to restore community, especially in neighborhoods with severely depleted social capital?
In both Bowling Alone and Our Kids, Putnam urges Americans to draw the “lessons of history” from the reformers of the Progressive Era, who acted in response to the inequities of the Gilded Age. In a civic revival from 1870 to 1920, Americans formed a plethora of national associations with local chapters—including the National Rifle Association, the League of Women Voters, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Americans also enacted governmental reforms, particularly the establishment of public schools, which Putnam praises: “everybody should pay for everybody’s kids to go to school.” He urges a parallel response to what he considers a new Gilded Age: a civic-minded revival of “collective efficacy” to reestablish equality of opportunity and save the American Dream.
Yet a problem arises, in that Putnam falls under “the spell of the political community,” to use Nisbet’s phrase. Putnam’s collectivism is a symptom of the deeper syndrome by which the political community has already absorbed vital functions of the “small, primary, personal relationships of society.” The notion that everybody’s kids are everyone else’s kids is a fiction if applied to the national level; every kid grows up and learns to be part of a community in a particular family and neighborhood. Putnam’s nostalgia for a time when everyone considered everyone else’s kids as their own is more properly directed toward the kind of close-knit community Ehrenhalt describes.
That’s not to say government resources or programs can never be part of the effort to rebuild community, but that the real antidote is not collectivism. Overhauling the more fundamental real-life relationships and human-scale institutions on which genuine “collective efficacy” rests is the true imperative. As Putnam himself put it in Better Together, “smaller is better for social-capital creation.” That book collects examples of intense relationship-building efforts that establish social networks in poor communities, from the work of Valley Interfaith in the Rio Grande Valley’s colonias to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in inner city Boston. The effort is intensive, but these examples show that even dilapidated urban neighborhoods or impoverished rural areas can regain civic vibrancy if leaders and citizens focus on interpersonal relationships and connecting with residents’ “life experience” rather than “abstract ideas.”
As Putnam documents, human-scale efforts and institutions often expand into state, regional, or national organizations. But the failure of the Great Society to satiate the hunger for community and build social capital suggests it can scarcely be imposed from the top. Civic leaders, social activists, and citizens seeking to restore American community should tend to the trees of interpersonal relationships and local institutions, and not miss them for the forest of an imagined national community. Understanding real-life community is a crucial step in the worthy quest to rebuild it.