By Todd Cohen
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Robert Putnam hopes people will plug into their communities.
Worried about the erosion of the ties that Americans forged with one another in first half of the 20th century, the Harvard scholar believes that America will solve its big social problems only when people find new ways to work together.
“We need to have a period of civic connectedness,” Putnam told 700 people Nov. 9 at the annual dinner of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro.
Putnam’s Saguaro Seminar at Harvard is working with three-dozen community foundations to measure “social capital” — the civic ties between people — in their cities, including Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte.
Using Putnam’s findings, the community foundations will look for ways to get people more involved in civic life.
The degree to which people get involved, he told the crowd at the Koury Convention Center, affects their own health and well-being, and that of their communities.
Neighborhoods are safer and people are healthier, he said, when neighbors know, visit and talk to one another.
“Social isolation is quite dangerous,” he said. “America is in the midst of a depression epidemic.”
Putnam has tracked civic connectedness by looking at membership in civic groups, and by studying market research about Americans’ likes, dislikes and habits.
He has found that big economic, cultural and technological changes in the late 1800s triggered social disruption, which in turn gave rise to an explosion of new civic and nonprofit groups in the first half of the 20th century.
That surge in civic activity crested in the two decades after World War II, when most civic groups doubled their market share.
But in the past 35 years, civic connectedness has plunged, he said, with Americans attending church less often, going to fewer public meetings, giving a smaller share of their income to charity and spending less time with their kids and neighbors.
“We don’t trust one another as much as much as we did,” he said, citing unprecedented growth in the number of lawyers.
Urban sprawl, television, changes in the economy and work, and the rise of Baby Boomer generation have contributed to the breakdown of civic involvement, Putnam said.
Like Americans a century ago, he said, Americans today must find new ways to get involved with one another.
Americans today, however, must improve on that earlier civic boom by bridging big gaps not addressed by that earlier generation, particularly divisions of race and ethnicity, Putnam said.
The answer, he said, lies in local communities.
“The last time we solved these problems, the solutions did not come from Harvard professors,” he said. “They came from people like you.”