Are We Still Bowling Alone?

In broken communities, the focus should be on social capital -- not just the economy.
September 2017
(Flickr/Benjamin Réthoré)
By Aaron M. Renn  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

When I was growing up in a small town in rural Indiana, many people left their doors unlocked and their keys in their cars. This was in the 1970s and 1980s -- hardly ancient history. Everybody knew everybody to some extent, and there was a sense of strong community solidarity. Kids knew that if they got in trouble at school there would be even more trouble when they got home. There were no jobs people weren’t willing to do. A classmate’s mother was a cook in the school cafeteria. I bagged groceries. It was hardly idyllic, but to a great extent it did resemble the traditional stereotypes of small-town life.

On the other hand, much of rural living in that era was very basic. Water service, trash collection and cable TV were not available. We had to rely on wells or cisterns, burned our trash in a 55-gallon drum and were limited to the handful of TV channels we could bring in through our aerials. We shared a party-line telephone with our neighbors. And the road I lived on was gravel when I first moved there.

But while life in these places was poorer and technologically rudimentary, it was socially intact and cohesive. Now, that’s inverted. Although the comforts of everyday life are in many ways better, social conditions have collapsed for many. What has happened calls into question the idea that social well-being is tightly linked to economic health -- that just providing more and better jobs can by itself turn broken families and communities around.

Today, people in my hometown can enjoy many of the amenities urbanites do. The internet gives people access to the world, to any major news site, to the endless selections from Amazon, iTunes or Netflix. Satellite TV provides hundreds of channels. There are more and better stores and restaurants than ever. When I was a kid, we didn’t have air conditioning at home or at school; it’s now the norm at both.

And thanks to casino money, my county has new schools, freshly paved roads, and new fire stations and libraries. It is easy commuting distance to a major city, and the county’s population is actually growing. Not all rural communities are so fortunate fiscally, but most of them have experienced many of the same quality-of-life improvements.

Yet the county where I grew up also recently had the dubious distinction of having more meth lab busts than any other rural county in the state. Many families, including my own, have struggled with the challenges of drug addiction. Doors and cars are now locked tight. An older couple was brutally murdered by two teens a few years ago. The out-of-wedlock birth rate is at 36 percent. My father, the retired superintendent of a local quarry -- which paid a starting wage of $15 an hour plus full benefits and profit-sharing -- frequently complained about his struggles to find minimally qualified workers.

There are a number of people in the national media who make the argument that things aren’t so bad, that if you look at the numbers this idea that things are horrible in much of America just isn’t true. It’s easy for me to believe this is actually the case in a quantitative sense. But man does not live by bread alone. When you have an iPhone but your community is disintegrating socially, it’s not hard to see why people think things have taken a turn for the worse.

A lot of the focus in Rust Belt and rural communities is on the economy, and rightly so. There are economic challenges that do need to be addressed. But in many cases the real problems are more than economic. They are social and perhaps even spiritual in a broad sense, a despair that has destroyed so many lives.

Some of this decline was captured in Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and more recently in a report commissioned by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, vice chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee. Called “What We Do Together,” the report tracks the striking decline in many measures of social capital in the country since 1970. The share of 3- and 4-year-olds being cared for by a parent during the day, for example, dropped from 80 percent to less than half. Births from unwed mothers grew from 11 percent to 40 percent. The number of adults who think most people can be trusted dropped from 46 percent to 31 percent. People are spending less time socializing with neighbors. Participation in religion and in civic life has declined.

These forms of social capital once sustained a sense of community during hard times and through the ups and downs of life. Today, many of these supports -- family, neighbors, churches and social institutions -- are much weaker. Government can provide financial assistance to people in need, but it can’t replace these human connections that are critical when we’ve just taken a punch to the gut.

The America of the 1970s and 1980s is dead and gone. It can’t be recreated. But America must find a way to rebuild its social capital if it hopes to change the trajectory of so many struggling people and places. Economic development is not enough.