Are Americans “bowling alone” now more than ever?
In his 1995 essay, sociologist Robert Putnam warned of the increasing atomization of American society. The institutions of American social capital, he wrote, are on the decline: Attendance at public forums, religious groups, civic organizations, and even his eponymous bowling leagues have been steadily declining since the the heyday of the 1950s American suburban community. The social fabric of America is coming apart on the neighborhood level, wrote Putnam—and it’s only going to get worse.
Unfortunately, it seems Putnam was on to something. In a report for urbanism think-tank City Observatory, economist Joe Cortright tracks the decline of American social capital over the past 40 years not simply in terms of membership to voluntary organizations, but also through the relationships Americans have with their geographical neighbors. Data used in the report from the General Social Survey doesn’t paint a pretty picture: According to Cortright, the degree to which Americans trust one another is at a 40-year low.
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It’s not only trust, but actual relationships, too: Americans now are less likely than ever before to “socialize regularly” with their neighbors. This is the case even in large cities, where you might expect proximity to breed familiarity; the Washington Post notes that population density in major American cities dropped rapidly as primarily white, well-off citizens fled for the extra room (and distance) of the suburbs during the 1950s.