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Employment solutions: Can a town’s good deeds lower unemployment?

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Sullivan's landlady, Elizabeth Anderson, agrees. A few months ago, she lowered his rent.

"I could use the $100, too, but not as much as this store could," Ms. Anderson explains. "It's worth it, in the long run, because of keeping people still trying to contribute to the economy and their own well-being, and the well-being of the town."

Recent studies suggest that community altruism doesn't just sweeten people's lives, it's also good dollars and cents. Though it's hard to prove with scientific certainty, there is plenty of evidence showing that places with active citizens have lost fewer jobs during the recession than places without them. Chatham County – part bedroom community, part green living mecca, part Mayberry, R.F.D. – may be a case in point. Its jobless rate is 7.3 percent, one of the lowest rates in the state.

Civic safety nets: God, friends, Facebook

The notion that it pays for people to look after each other isn't new. If you ask Herbert Gintis, a behavioral economist at the University of Massachusetts, it goes back 2 million years. It started when hunter-gatherers began living together in tribes, and people's chances of survival were better if they worked together and made decisions together than if they fended for themselves. Of course, human society has morphed tremendously over millenniums. But Professor Gintis sees remnants of those ancient dynamics all over the place.

"Communities operate mostly not through law, but through mutual give and take and co-operation," he says. "In a good community, people know what the kids are doing. They gossip and report on each other; they help each other. A community is a form of social organization in which control is informally exercised through participation. People just participate – they come to the town meeting, they talk to each other. Everybody keeps their own property in good shape because their neighbors will yell at them if they don't."

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