Civic ties eroding – 40 U.S. regions studied

By Todd Cohen

Americans do a great job of volunteering and giving to charity, mainly through religious congregations, but they take few chances, stick to their own kind and are divided by race and class, a new study says.

Those findings suggest that improving the health of the three communities depends on better connecting citizens with one another, say participants in the national study, believed to be the biggest ever of civic ties in U.S. communities.

Consider three communities in the Carolinas that participated in the study.

“We could do better in our community in terms of our overall trust of people outside our regular circles,” says Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro in North Carolina.

Scott Wierman, president of The Winston-Salem Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C., says local citizens “are great at doing things for people but not so great at doing things with people.”

And Bill McCoy, director of the Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte,  says people in the 14-county Charlotte region in North Carolina and parts of South Carolina “must be concerned about how we build bridges along racial lines, across socioeconomic lines, across age lines.”

The three communities in the Carolinas were among 40 participating in the study, which was commissioned by local community foundations and some private foundations and conducted by the Saguaro Seminar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

The study found a direct link between a community’s health and the degree to which its citizens trust and interact with one another.

Americans are deeply involved in religion, particularly in the South and Midwest, and generally tolerant of cultural differences, the study found. But religion also can breed isolation and intolerance, it said.

Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, who led the study and has written widely about the erosion of “social capital,” or civic connectedness, says a critical challenge is to build on Americans’ religious activity by fostering greater tolerance for minority views and greater sensitivity to the need for social change.

Based on surveys of 3,000 people nationally and another 26,200 in the 40 communities, the study produced a scorecard showing how each community stacked up compared to expectations based on its demographics.

Greensboro and Winston-Salem, for example, trailed only rural southeast South Dakota – and was followed closely by the Charlotte region — in giving and volunteering compared to predicted levels.

All three Carolinas communities also posted high scores in religious activity compared to predicted levels.

But all three communities fell short of expectations in a number of key areas, including social trust, interracial trust and informal socializing.

“People don’t build their social connections in spontaneous, naturally-occurring settings,” says Doug Easterling of the Center for the Study of Social Issues at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an adviser for the study. “They rely on church and other highly structured settings or places.”

As a result, he says, “you don’t have people who trust one another because they haven’t gotten to know one another through daily interactions.”

McCoy of UNC-Charlotte, who also advised the study, says a critical challenge is to better connect the region’s large and rapidly growing Hispanic and Latino population to the community.

Another big challenge, he says, is better connecting the poor and less educated to the community. Regardless of race, the study found, civic ties are stronger among people who are more affluent and better educated.

Overall, McCoy says, people in the region “tend to delegate the decision-making to somebody else,” particularly to the business community.

Betty Chafin Rash, executive director of Voice and Choices of the Central Carolinas, a 14-county initiative focused on environmental and growth issues, says people in the region are great at bonding, particularly through religious institutions, but poor at building bridges.

“We apparently don’t connect very well with people who are different,” she says.

The Greensboro and Winston-Salem community foundations both plan to begin meeting with civic, business and education groups to talk about the study and look for ways to get people more involved in the community and with one another.

The Foundation for the Carolinas in Charlotte will study whether to use some of its $5 million in unrestricted funds to address issues raised in the study.

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