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Putnam: Duluth more involved than some cities

The Harborside Ballroom at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center may have been "the most civic room in America" when Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam spoke there Wednesday afternoon.

The Harborside Ballroom at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center may have been "the most civic room in America" when Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam spoke there Wednesday afternoon.
Putnam is the author of "Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community." Speaking at the annual meeting of the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation, he labeled the audience as "most civic" after asking how many of the 400 in attendance had attended a public meeting in the past year. Virtually everyone raised a hand.
Putnam's research indicates that this show of involvement is against the trend of the past 40 years. Putnam has found that more of us are choosing to stay home instead of belonging to and being active in a civic group, political party or a church, or even playing bridge or attending a dinner party.
While population growth has hidden some of the trends, when the percentage of people involved in certain activities is compared over time, Putnam said, "about one-half of our civic infrastructure has evaporated."
Among his findings:
* In 1973, 22 percent of Americans said they had been to a civic meeting in the past year. In 1999, 12 percent said they had.
* Active involvement in civic groups has plunged even more. Seventeen percent were officers or committee members of a group in 1973, compared to 8 percent in 1999.
* We have a picnic crisis in America, Putnam said. In 1975, the average American went on five picnics. In 1999, two picnics were the norm.
* People still play cards three times more often than they go to the movies, but if current trends continue, "the last card will be played in 2013."
* Dinner parties are disappearing. People entertained friends at home 14 times per year in 1975, but only eight times per year in 1999.
* Membership in the American Medical Association among doctors peaked in 1957, the earliest of the organizations surveyed.
* Membership in the Optimists Club peaked in 1980, the latest peak of the groups surveyed.
* Eighty percent of all eighth-graders have a television in their own bedroom.
* The percentage of personal income that we give away increased from 1929 to 1965 from 1.3 percent to 2.3 percent. Since then, it has dropped back to Depression-era levels, at 1.6 percent.
* In 1960, 55 percent of Americans said most people can be trusted. In 1999, only 35 percent agreed.
* As a corollary to that, in 1900, Putnam said, 41 lawyers existed for every 10,000 employees. In 1970, there were 39 lawyers for every 10,000. However, in 1999, there were 71. Putnam said, "Lawyers are in the business of creating artificial trust."
* The average American watches television four hours per day.
* Your chances of dying in the next year are cut in half if you belong to one civic group, and are reduced by two-thirds if you belong to two civic groups. In fact, Putnam said, "Social isolation is more hazardous to your health than smoking."
In looking for reasons to explain these trends, Putnam eliminated greater mobility. He said Americans are less mobile than they were 150 years ago, and that the trend has been toward less mobility for 50 years.
The Internet also cannot be blamed, he said, because "these trends started when Bill Gates was in diapers."
High on the list, however, as possible culprits are the automobile and urban sprawl. Putnam said that every 10 minutes of additional commuting time cuts into attendance at meetings that build social capital by 10 percent.
Television is a major factor, he said. "Most people watch 'Friends' rather than have friends."
More worrisome is that the generation born between 1910 and 1930, he said, has been "an amazingly civic generation." However, it is dying off.
Unfortunately, he said, it did not pass its habit of involvement on to their kids or grandkids.
Putnam said that the trends are manifesting themselves in several social problems.
He said that what is thought to be a problem with the public schools is actually a parent problem. "Parents have dropped out of their kids' education," he said.
People are more dissatisfied with politicians in part, he said, because the politicians no longer connect with them at social gatherings. Instead, they buy the connection through TV. In effect, the politicians have replaced social capital with financial capital, Putnam said, making it more difficult for some people to participate in the political process.
Government can both create and destroy social capital, Putnam said. An example of a destructive policy was the urban renewal programs that leveled neighborhoods in the 1960s, and examples of creative policies were 4-H and the G.I. Bill, Putnam said.
He said that the nation went through similar times 100 years ago after the advent of the Industrial Revolution. He cautioned that he is not advocating a return to the 1950s, but said that over the next 10 years Americans will have to find new solutions to restore social capital in their society. One way to do that, he said, is to address the day care issue that faces many families. He urges dramatically greater flexibility for employees in the workplace.
Putnam's speech was underwritten by Minnesota Power, an Allete company.
The foundation elected James Stewart chair of the board of trustees, replacing Ann Stock. Stock announced that the foundation set a record in 2000 with $3.8 million in contributions to its various funds.
Tom West is publisher of the Budgeteer News. Reach him at tom.west@mx3.com or 723-1207.

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