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Jewish World Review May 1, 2001 / 8 Iyar, 5761

Linda Seebach

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The decline of social capital


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Tired of bowling alone? Try tournament cribbage.

"Bowling alone" is the catchy phrase chosen by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam for the title first of an article and then of a book, published last year, about the precipitous decline of social and civic engagement in America - for example, plenty of people still go bowling but far fewer do it in regular leagues with a group of people whom they come to know well.

People are less likely to participate not only in bowling and other team sports, but in varied social activities such as having friends over, visiting family and going to club meetings or church social activities. At the same time, they have become less likely to be active politically; voting rates are lower, fewer people follow the news, and attendance at rallies or public meetings is down.

Political scientists call this rich network of associations and skills "social capital."

It's the people you know, who look after your cat when you're away, or give you a ride to the hospital or tip you off about a job opening. It's your experience as a school volunteer or a neighborhood association committee member or a signature-gatherer for a grass-roots initiative.

Life runs more smoothly in places with lots of social capital; there's enough variation among the states to show a positive correlation with children's welfare, better schools, lower crime and improved health. Of course, causality runs both ways; if crime is so bad people are afraid to leave their homes after dark, their opportunities for civic participation are limited. But it's also true, Putnam says, that community ties are individually beneficial.

"If you smoke and belong to no groups," he says, "it's a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining."

So it's not good news for American society that social capital is declining most sharply among younger people. That means not merely that people who are young now are less involved than older-age groups are now, though that's true; it means that people of a given age now are less involved than people of that same age were 30 years ago. That shift implies a continuing decline as older-population cohorts die.

I'd just recently finished Putnam's book when a friend told me she would be playing that weekend in a regional cribbage tournament. Aha, I thought. This is what Putnam is talking about.

Card-playing is one of the social activities Putnam found to be declining.

Cribbage is a two-handed card game - the best, say avid players - and an old one, invented, so says the American Cribbage Congress (http://www.cribbage.org on the Web; 1-888-PEGGING), around 1635. But the Congress itself was started in 1979, and sponsors 150 local groups as well as regional and national tournaments.

At first, people go to play cards. But as with other interests, they continue to go because of the friendships they make. Maybe they share a hobby like cribbage or antique cars. Or they go to professional conventions, say for journalists or mathematicians. Either way it's Old Home Week.

And if you belong to an organization that has chapters everywhere, and you move, you have a head start on finding friends in a strange place. That's what I did -with the Packard Car Club, Mensa and the Society of Professional Journalists - when I moved to Los Angeles a decade ago, knowing no one.

"Membership organizations" that are supported by their members' dues but never meet, whose activities are carried out by paid staff, are a poor substitute.

If cribbage clubs demonstrate the advantages of this kind of social capital, they also illustrate why Putnam writes about decline. Most of the players learned as children, and some are teaching their own kids, but few young people play.

Will the Internet restore social connections? At most it would help, but it can't replace face-to-face, pitch-in-and-help connections.

Americans took to "cocooning" in the '70s, Putnam says. But a cocoon is a very confining place to spend your life.



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