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The American way - civic engagement - thrives

Contrary to cynical conventional wisdom, US citizens are notincreasingly 'bowling alone.'

The United States is an individualist democracy. "Let government do it" has never been our thing. We've counted on individuals doing it - by accepting responsibility for building and maintaining a good society.

No one ever thought this would be easy. A "collectivist" individualism built around community engagement can release enormous civic energy, but it asks a lot of millions of citizens. It's not surprising that many in each succeeding generation of Americans have worried that vigorous community participation through groups, charities, and voluntary service is somehow losing ground.

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These worries are much evident today. The US economy is hugely successful, but isn't "community" suffering even amid these burgeoning material resources? Aren't we too transfixed by what I need, to make me happy, at the expense of what we need, as in our family life, for real individual fulfillment? Aren't we participating less than we used to? Aren't we retreating into private pursuits, or to use a metaphor that has resonated in recent years, aren't we now increasingly "bowling alone"?

For several years, I've been assembling and assessing the empirical record on the current state of the country's civic engagement. My conclusion is that we've allowed our persistent anxieties about the quality of our citizenship to blind us to many positive trends. Civic America is in fact being renewed and extended, not diminished. And this is happening despite such challenges as both Mom and Dad having to juggle the demands of jobs outside the home and the critical tasks of child-rearing - or as Mom having to do it all alone. And it's happening in the face of the supposedly narcotizing effects of TV.

A reason the idea of declining civic engagement has seemed plausible is easy to see: Many older groups have lost ground.

Robert Putnam notes in his much-cited essay, "Bowling Alone," that membership or participation is down significantly in Lions Clubs, Shriners, Jaycees, Elks, Masons, the League of Women Voters, the Federation of Women's Clubs, the PTA, labor unions ... and bowling leagues. But groups have always come and gone, for many reasons. Membership declines become worrisome only when they're widespread, or if limited, when the groups in retreat are highly important civically and aren't being satisfactorily replaced.

In many areas, group membership and participation are in fact on the rise. The experience of environmental organizations is a good case in point.

Founded in 1892, the Sierra Club is the oldest of the major environmental organizations. As late as 1970, the club's membership nationally totaled just under 115,000. Over the next two decades, when civic America was supposedly in retreat, Sierra Club membership climbed by more than fivefold. Other environmental groups - like the National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and Nature Conservancy - experienced similar, large gains.

Of all of the assertions of a decline in civic participation, one of the most troubling is that of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the PTA. The number of parents in local chapters plunged from the early 1960s through the early 1980s. Membership reached a high of 12.1 million in 1962 and reached a modern-day low in 1981 of just 5.3 million.

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But the reason PTA membership fell off wasn't that parents stopped participating; they associated increasingly with other groups. That is, they substituted other groups for the same basic functions. In the '60s and '70s, huge numbers of parent-teacher groups disaffiliated from the national PTA. Most called themselves PTOs. Their disaffiliation seems largely to have been a desire to keep all the dues money for local use, rather than sending a large portion to PTA's national headquarters.

CHURCH has long been an impressive example of the country's high civic engagement. But, today many Americans tell pollsters that they believe religion is in retreat - losing influence in the life of the nation. In fact, the proportion of Americans belonging to a church or other religious organization has been trending upward over much of US history.

"This pattern can truly be called the churching of America," observe Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in "The Churching of America, 1776-1990."

"On the eve of the Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans were churched.... [B]y 1906 slightly more than half of the US population was churched. Adherence rates reached 56 percent by 1926. Since then the rate has been rather stable although inching upward...."

In case after case where a group important in the past finds itself losing ground, or struggling to maintain its place, the main cause is strong competition. The Boy Scouts is a case in point. Membership - including adult volunteers - reached its high in 1970; it has since declined by roughly 10 percent. The reason Scouting is struggling to maintain its position is the exponential growth of other youth organizations such as sports leagues offering organized instruction, parental involvement, and youth participation. For example, US Youth Soccer - which didn't exist at all until 1977 - now has over a half-million adult volunteers and 2.5 million youth players. All this youth activity doesn't occur without serious adult engagement.

Joining a group isn't the only way to partake of a healthy civic life. Volunteering is another key aspect of citizen engagement. And volunteering is up significantly, even among young people. ABC News and The Washington Post found in a 1997 survey, for example, 58 percent reporting that in the past year they had volunteered for a church, charity, or other community group - up from 44 percent in 1984, when the same question was asked.

Charitable giving is up too. The best efforts at calculating total charitable giving by individuals pegged the amount at about $10 billion in 1960; 36 years later the figure had climbed to $150 billion. Inflation accounts for a part of the gain. But when converted to constant purchasing power - what the dollar would buy at its 1993 level - total giving in real terms nearly tripled between 1960 and 1995. Real per-capita-giving doubled in this time.

Rates of voting in the US reached their 20th-century high in the '60s and have since fallen off. Many Americans are plainly dissatisfied with how the game of politics is being played, and this undoubtedly contributed to the turnout decline. There's reason to be concerned about these developments and to seek remedies.

We should remember, though, that Americans have always been disinclined to look to government. Our civic participation has always been disproportionately in the private sphere - in joining, volunteering, and giving. At century's end, we show no sign of lessening our commitment.

*Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, wrote the forthcoming book 'The Ladd Report on Civic America' (The Free Press).

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