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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Civic Virtue Under Stress

Doyle McManus writes in The Los Angeles Times:

As the recession deepens, participation in civic activities — community organizations, volunteer groups, even church attendance and social clubs — is likely to drop. Sociologists once assumed that during hard times people would naturally band together, if only to protest their plight or to give each other solace. It turns out that the opposite is true: Economic distress causes people to withdraw.

"Rather than get together and hold community meetings or march in protest, the effect of unemployment in the Great Depression was to cause people to hunker down," said Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard sociologist whose book, "Bowling Alone," examines Americans' civic engagement in the 20th century. "We found exactly the same thing in the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s … and I'm pretty confident we'll see the same pattern in this recession too."

Though a few political movements, such as the "tea party," may have been invigorated by the downturn, more broad-based civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters have seen their membership drop.

Why does civic participation drop during hard times? Jennie E. Brand of UCLA studied the ripple effect of unemployment among families in Wisconsin, and she says there are several reasons: People who lose their jobs feel depressed; they sometimes feel ashamed of their financial troubles; they lose some of their trust in society; and some of them move to new communities where they have no ties.

See also a 2009 post on the Social Capital blog.