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Walking the civic talk after Sept. 11

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A litmus test for our country is whether we can seize the opportunity to restore our civic connections.

For the past 40 years, our social muscle has steadily atrophied. By virtually any measure, our relationships of reciprocity corroded: We voted less, joined less, cooperated less, gave less, trusted less, and spent less time with friends, neighbors, and even family.

Then the tragedy of 9/11 dramatically led us to rediscover friends, neighbors, public institutions, and a shared fate. In 2000, Robert D. Putnam wrote in "Bowling Alone" that restoring civic engagement "would be eased by a palpable national crisis, like war, or depression or natural disaster, but for better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such galvanizing crisis."

Now we do.

To gauge how much Sept. 11 has transformed our values and civic habits, in October and November 2001, we re-surveyed some of the 30,000 Americans whose civic habits we observed in 2000. Our survey, funded by the Rapoport Foundation and the Hauser Center at Harvard, encompassed the anthrax crisis and the start of the Afghan war.

The 750 Americans surveyed reported a significant drop in cynicism, large gains in trust of government, and more moderate gains in trust of police, neighbors, co-workers, shop clerks, people with whom they worship, and even strangers. A net 8 percent of Americans were more likely to trust community leaders and 6 percent were more likely to have worked on community projects. We are more interested in politics, and our collective health improved, since fewer Americans now lack someone to turn to in a personal crisis. Moreover, these improvements in civic attitudes were accompanied generally by a rise in tolerance and interethnic relations, with the possible exception of Arab-Americans.

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