Plugged in or wireless, Americans grow more isolated
Fifteen years after Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone alerted Americans to declining social capital, the United States has grown even more fragmented, according to a City Observatory study Less in Common. Restoring the civic commons is key to making progress on many challenges, the report says.
Two key measures are trust and time spent with neighbors, both in decline. The following graphs tell the story:
The share of the population that says “most people can be trusted” has fallen from a majority in the 1970s, to about one-third today, according to the annual General Social Survey. Meanwhile, “In the 1970s, nearly 30 percent of Americans frequently spent time with neighbors, and only 20 percent had no interactions with them. Today, those proportions are reversed,” notes City Observatory.
Recreation is increasingly privatized. Since 1980, the number of members of private health clubs have quadrupled to more than 50 million. “We used to swim together—prior to World War II, almost all pools were public” according to City Observatory. “Today, we swim alone in the 5 million or so private swimming pools compared to just a few thousand public ones.”
• Driving alone has become the norm, with transit reserved for the poor. Although transit use has recently risen, the long-term trend in commuting via transit has dropped from 12 percent in 1960 to 5 percent today.
• Economic segregation trends upward as middle-income neighborhoods decline. "Between 1970 and 2009 the proportion of families living either in predominantly poor or predominantly affluent neighborhoods doubled from 15 percent to 33 percent."
• Many live in gated communities. "By 1997 it was estimated that there were more than 20,000 gated community developments of 3,000 or more residents."
• Politically, America sorts itself into like-minded geographies. "Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of consistent conservatives and about half (49 percent) of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views."
• The biggest portion of our leisure time is spent watching television. "TV watching is up to 19 hours per week today compared to about 10 hours in the 1960s."
Low-density, automobile-oriented living patterns are partly to blame, according to the report.
Encouraging counter-trends are also evident:
• Third places. “The number of coffee shops in the United States has nearly doubled in the past decade, from about 11,000 in 2003, to about 20,000 in 2012 (SBDC Network, 2012).”
• Farmer’s Markets. “The number of Farmer’s markets in the U.S. has quadrupled in the past two decades to more than 8,000 nationally (Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA), 2013).”
• Declining Racial Segregation. Overall, American neighborhoods have become demonstrably less segregated by race over the past half-century (Glaeser & Vigdor, 2012).
Overall, notes report author Joe Cortright, “There is compelling evidence that the connective tissue that binds us together in cities is coming apart. As we’ve spent more time in isolation and less time socializing with our neighbors, participation in the civic commons has suffered. Rebuilding social capital in America will require innovative approaches to spur community engagement.”
Robert Steuteville is executive director of Better Cities & Towns.