The Erosion of Community

The erosion of community in America has been a topic of discussion and concern for decades, most notably in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) by Robert D. Putnam, based on his 1995 essay Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979) by Christopher Lasch and The Lonely Crowd (1950, revised 1969) by David Riesman.

In an age which seems abundantly well-served by individualism, consumerism, the central state and global corporations, why does this erosion of community matter? After all, aren’t we doing rather splendidly despite a declining sense of community?

The Fraying Ties That Bond Us Together

In my recent essay The Real State of the Union: The Erosion of Community, I suggested that social cooperation (another way of describing community) is essential to human progress, communication and well-being, and that the dominant forces of our era, the central state and consumerist cartel-state capitalism, actively dismantle community as a byproduct of their dominance.

Riesman’s sociological analysis identifies the primary driver of the erosion as the shift from tradition-directed and inner-directed social character to other-directed; shorthand for a consumerist obsession with gaining others’ approval. Riesman distilled this change thusly: "The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.” (In today’s social media-drenched social character, we might amend this to “wants to be ‘liked’ on Facebook.”) In his view, the consumerist social character’s dominance threatened democracy and self-awareness.

At the risk of over-simplifying Lasch’s analysis, the essence of narcissism is fear of the emptiness that lies at the core of other-directed consumerism.

Putnam identifies isolating technologies—videogames, the Internet, TV, etc.—as critical drivers for the decline in social interaction. He also posits that a loss of trust in political process has led to lower rates of political participation.

In The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America, the author proposes that social cooperation waxes and wanes with wealth inequality: as inequality rise, so, too, does polarization. People become less cooperative and socially engaged as polarization increases.

Centralization Actually Pushes Us Farther Apart

This perspective misses the political point, which is the structure of our centralized state-dominated economy leads to both wealth inequality and the loss of community from the same dynamic: the substitution of the state/corporation as the organizing/controlling structure for society, effectively displacing community.

Since human behavior is guided less by ideals and social character than by whatever incentives and disincentives are present, perhaps we should consider what incentives and disincentives are influencing social cooperation capital.

In our current system, the impersonal state replaces the material value created by participating in community with direct payments of cash; there is no need to invest the time and energy needed to cooperate with others once the state provides the basics of life.

The aimless armies of unemployed people receive just enough from the state to eliminate the incentive to rebel. But this does not fill the gap left by the destruction of community with anything positive or fulfilling. It simply maintains the void via bribery.

The notion that corporations pursuing maximization of return on capital for their shareholders can organize society to benefit everyone is nonsensical. How could organizations dedicated to reaping profits meet community needs that cannot necessarily be commoditized for a profit?

A Witch's Brew of Causes

Clearly, the erosion of social cooperation is complex. And just as clearly, no one explanation accounts for the decades-long trend.

Two longtime correspondents recently made observations that suggest additional avenues of inquiry. Kevin K. wrote:

 “I'm no defender of the Central State and Central Planning, but I don't think they are to blame for (most of) the lack of ‘community’ we have today.  I don't know the exact reason (TV and the Internet have something to do with it) but people in America just seem to get together less and less every year.  It seems like this trend has accelerated in the years since Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone.  As I'm pushing 50 I've been reading a lot more obituaries as more my peers’ parents pass on.  Almost all the parents have a long list of clubs, associations, churches, and charities that they were actively involved with until they day they died, while few of their own kids are actively involved with any clubs, associations, churches, and charities at all.

I don't think inequality has as much to do with polarization as the changes in our culture that Charles Murray writes about in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.  When Warren Buffet comes in to talk to the ‘common man’ over a Coke and a burger most people don't seem to have a problem with his wealth, while there will often be polarization when a ‘new money’ guy drives up in a leased Ferrari and talks down to the ‘common man.’”

This suggests to me the potential role of both a decline in shared values and a new class polarization as factors in the decline of community.

Frank M. submitted these observations:

“When I was growing up, almost all adults participated in civic organizations -- Elks, Lions, Grange, 4H, Rotary, student sports, hospital fund drives, veterans' groups of all sorts, Garden Club, Little Theater, book clubs, $5/month investment clubs, planning committees for fairs and parades and fireworks displays, and on, and on.  The great majority of adults were active in not just one but several such organizations at any given moment.

Very little of that has survived.  The animating concepts have not disappeared altogether, but they are ghostlike wisps of what used to be normal.  Yes, there was pettiness and resentment.  There was jealousy and gossip and cliquishness.  But there was also a natural and robust commitment to life in that small-town community.

Rationalizing such commitment was unnecessary.  In fact, even articulating it would have been pointless.  No one would have understood the question. A sense of shared destiny was never stated explicitly, and any attempt to do so would probably have been considered weird.  Things were just the way they were, and that was the way things were supposed to be.

In retrospect, that dynamic now seems to me a great deal more valuable and worthwhile than I could ever have grasped in my youth.  And at least we *had* a middle class that was large enough and functional enough to qualify *as* a class.

In its place today is precisely what you describe: federal support checks and Wal-Mart jobs -- a witch's brew of government bribes and corporate bait-and-switch schemes.”

Is rising inequality the root cause? Or the drifting apart of civil society into divergent classes with very little social mixing or mutual understanding?

Neither is entirely satisfactory, as communities with roughly the same level of inequality as existed in 1960 have seen a visible decline in social organizations, and the social classes described by Murray (one favors NASCAR and pickup trucks, has relatives in the military and is often unmarried; the other is married with two incomes, has little contact with the military, tends to attend church, etc.) could be expected to form associations within their class. Yet social organizations are declining across the class spectrum.

Even churches are not immune to a decline in participation. Buddhist temples in Hawaii, for example, are being abandoned by the young generations; many if not most of the participants are over 60.

In sum, inequality and widening gaps between social classes do not adequately account for the broad-based erosion of civil society. The social fabric formed by membership in a variety of community groups described by Kevin and Frank has decayed, and none of the factors discussed above seem to fully account for the erosion.

In Part 2: The 10 Factors Destroying our Social Health, we examine the worst-offending practices in modern western culture that are dissolving the bonds that once made our society thrive. These are important to understand well, as it's through this awareness that we can identify and work to reverse these factors, should we have the constitution and courage to do so.

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(The Fourth Turning), Xer's will arrive in midlife 'tired'.  This is the generation that was told by the boomers to embrace individualism (of which they themselves had little interest), and are now 'hanging up their spurs' and looking for who exactly they should hand off the baton to.  Xer's don't want it - that was your gig, and as the 'hardened product' have not only no time, or money - but lack the careers that allow and encourage such efforts.  All of these clubs and activities and the feeling of social cohesion they oozed were nothing more than the result…the product, of an economy that offered great pay, benefits, and futures.  Why don't people grasp and realize the devastating effects no/low/diminished jobs and futures of people have on a life or lifestyle touched upon above.  Plus, if you were raised an Xer - you were never taught the values or to value what the boomers and silents did.  It was just a bunch of talk, words that sounded good but nobody saw a future in.  So here we are, a society already in a 'high' looking to go 'higher'…with no fuel.  The older and more money you are/have, the less you'll likely be able to offer any help in resolving the issue - and the less likely you even want to.  Other than a few instances and examples, follow the money or these days, the promise of money (aka hope/future/etc) - but yes, no doubt for sure, they're are lots of examples to the contrary.  Realizing that this site in particular is loaded with non-typical examples of society at large, and if you or I forego 'cherry picking', its like the guy said, 'Its the economy'.

A great crash will shock the misled.  But the outcome is unpredictable.  A society is born, grows up, ages, and declines just like other natural phenomena. 

I need this so called "community" in my life to provide more meaning to my skills/knowledge and so that I can begin to find happiness again. I am one of the 44%+  of the Y generation that is "underemployed" and waiting for things to get worse. I am racing right now to make enough capital so I can do more meaningful things with me life.
It's not easy when a a few acres of land with a modest home is 10 times your income and the only meaningful employment is unpaid. Thus I work a job that does not take advantage of my skills and does not make me happy. I wish I was 5 years older…

Treemagnet: I really enjoy your comments on this blog. It's great to have such diverse folks on this blog.

Aloha! Not sure you can have sustainable community whilst the community members contend with unsustainable debt, either per capita public debt or per capita private debt. In 1953 per capita private debt was $10,315 and by 2008 that had grown to $149,600 per capita. Add in per capita public debt in 2008 of $33,200 and you have total per capita gross debt in the USA of $182,800.
From 1918 to 1973, a 55 year period private debt grew at a pace of 450%, averaging 8.2% per year. After the 1971 Nixon monetary default private debt from 1973 to 2008, the same 55 year period grew at a rate of 1,450%, averaging 26.3% per year . Clearly a substantial increase and clearly a direct benefit to bankers, not communities. Essentially debt levels are still at historical tip of the iceberg levels. A correction needs to occur and that deflationary correction is what the global governments and central banks are fighting tooth and nail to prevent, essentially by adding more debt to the equation.

Adding to that debt burden is the added burden of devalued labor units due to monetary corruption that causes a loss of value in the monetary unit, the purchasing power. For instance if you had a minimum wage job in America in 1953 you made $1,530 per year. You could pay off the average new home cost of $9,950 in 6.5 years. While the generations now working minimum wage in 2008 make $13,362 with an average home price of $245,300 it would take 18.35 years to become mortgage free. Of course we all know the cost of food and fuel and taxes make it near impossible to own a home on a minimum wage income. This is where further stress comes to bare on the community because it takes at least two adult workers to sustain a mortgage and household now rather the single earner income in the 1950s. Add to the stress that each of the two earner families now probably must have multiple jobs to make ends meet. Another monetary anecdote is the movie Bullitt with Steve McQueen. Shot in 1968 there is an clip in the film where he parks his Ford Mustang in a hotel parking lot. As the camera pulls back you see a sign on the side of the hotel advertising rooms for $1.75 per night or $7 per week. You might think that is the slum or skid row, but where he parked was the Embarcadero area of San Francisco, not exactly a typical poverty stricken slum. In that same year, 1968, minimum wage was $1.60, so in an 8 hour day you made $12.80. That is enough to stay at that hotel on the Embarcadero for a week and have enough left over for food. Try making that happen today as the price of a hotel room on the Embarcadero today is at least $200 per day, or $1,400 per week. With current minimum wage at $7.25 a days work would yield $58 not even enough to buy a six hour stay at a hotel in San Francisco. You'd be starving and homeless! Is it that the cost of things have gotten very expensive or is it that the value of our money has been decimated? I'll go with the latter.

Go to 00:41 to see the hotel sign …

There is no question that the per capita debt has burdened the communities of America. Debt enslaves people and causes the debtor to spend more hours away from family while causing stress on the community in the form of psychological and physiological impairments. The cost to treat these stress related ailments, which includes addictive behavior, makes every community less sustainable as the productivity and overall health and happiness of the community suffers. There are these relatively unseen and seemingly unrelated consequences for the role of expanding debt on the world. Its a vicious cycle whereby more debt adds more burden. Your behavior changes in a profound way when you take on a mortgage and car loan commitment.

The sustainability of the community needs to factor in corrupt monetary policy of government in order to survive. I would say one of the single greatest stressors to community now is our corrupt monetary system. My 1970 labor units have been decimated by this central government central bank regime. Unfortunately our leaders today seem to mistakenly believe this will effect them and their families little going forward and so they place a low priority on any monetary changes that in my opinion should be the top platform on any Presidential campaign, but instead it is an issue widely ignored and in some ways forbidden to even discuss in a nation tv forum. It's the 900lbs gorilla sitting in the Oval Office! The way forward is not to ignore the current monetary crisis. When it comes to a corrupt monetary system we are the 100%!

Yes, I recall the community-based activities of my youth. My babysitter brought me to American Legion meetings and let me march with them in parades (when it did not conflict with my girl scout troop's parades.) We had volunteer firemen who looked out for each other. Here we have a fraternity of the law-enforcement community (bi-racial, for those of you who think the South is mostly made of haters) and in both places we had runner's communities and a network of caring people running various community charities. I think my favorite example might be the annual multi-church/synagogue concert where admission cost two cans of food for an emergency food bank. That went on until 10 years ago. Many rural communities still have a 4-H program, too; my sister-in-law and her kids participate.
But, you're right. As people get shoved up against the wall trying to pay ever-increasing food, healthcare and rent costs there is less and less time and energy for being their brother's keeper. And there is one more factor you are leaving out: when they drained out the facilities for the mentally ill, patted them on the head and told them to be good and go take their medicine, mostly under the guise of kindness and not confining them, we now have a resultant epidemic of their homelessness and jail time, with a large dash of community fear of kids getting snatched off the street.

Just to chime in with a very different viewpoint. Today's lack of community, for me, is solved by a carefully vetted communities that may not appeal to all, but work for me.

  1. Online communities  (based on a shared interest) + Meetups. Yeah, I know online communities are not local, but they engender local solutions and can lead to local face-to-face friendships. Example: I was a member of an online genre writer's manuscript critique group. A local Meetup not only showed who in the group was nearby but brought more members into a face-to-face critique group. This led to friendships that have lasted over 15 years. In my new community in SC, I found sustainability-minded people online and met them via Meetups.
  2. Church-based community. I admit this is not for everyone. That being said, it's quite local. On Long Island, in NY, my church community had a food bank I helped with. We visited the elderly and the sick. We provided career support for struggling individuals and ran blood drives. There were potlucks for families and luncheon get-togethers for seniors, with transportation. We had a lending library and volunteer tutors for struggling students. (Here in SC I am involved in a much smaller church but participate in some of the above-mentioned things through my son's larger church.) 

Kaimu, that is a great overview of the loss of purchasing power of our money and the slide in labor's value. Lots of causes–globalization, automation, high overhead costs for sickcare, etc., but you're right to nail financialization as a key factor. Bullitt is one of my favorite movies, so your examples really caught my attention… Love the guys all waiting around the "high tech" phone-line fax for the print out…
Looks like you might be in Hawaii. In 1973 I rented a studio in Honolulu (I was attending UH) for $125/month. I was able to make enough working part-time in construction to pay the rent, keep my VW running, pay tuition and books and actually save a bit of money. (I also attended plenty of evening meetings in community groups and political movements…) Very difficult for 20-year olds to pull this off now…

Wendy, those are important points–online virtual communities do have a place (my own blog is an example, as is and some traditional sources of community (church and 4-H, Scouts, etc.) are thriving where there are people willing to step up and provide leadership/get things done.

My own sense is that the "pain" generated by the Status Quo is unevenly distributed, and so the "payoff" for getting involved in community still seems less than the "costs" of getting involved in community to people who are protected from the real costs of the Status Quo. Once the true costs and trade-offs of the status quo become apparent, the benefits of community will visibly outweigh the costs of contributing.

McKenna speaks to me. Time for a cultural re-boot. where is Big Pharma when you need him? Defending Capitalism 5.0
I could see this implemented on a Grand scale. No courage required.

Aloha Charles! Yes, I do live in Hawaii on the Big Island south of Hilo. I have been here since 1998. I first went to Hawaii in 1969 and it was just a stop over on our way to Perth, Western Australia. Back then I was only 16 and my father who worked for Chevron Oil was transferred from SoCal to Australia. Just as another "money point" my father passed away in 2006 and my mother sent me some of his records. I found a receipt from the Outrigger Reef Hotel we stayed at in 1969 when we were in Waikiki. For a ocean view room it was $18. Now its more like $400. In my Cal college days I was renting a two bedroom apartment, with utilities included with a gym and pool for $200 a month. I also recall my VW motor caught fire due to a lose gas line and I towed it into a steam car wash and replaced all the plastic/rubber parts that melted like plug wires, rotor cap etc and the total repair was $50. Recall also all the complaints of the high cost of gas in 1970s when the embargo happened(odd/even)back when gas was $0.50 a gallon.I recently wrote a report on this subject and used a 1953 Knotts Berry Farm menu to illustrate what life was like under the "rigid austere" gold standard of the 1950s and 1960s. On the menu Knotts Berry Farm advertised a $2 Chicken Dinner. But even better they showed how many chicken dinners were served each year from 1937 to 1953. In 1937 they served 109,000 dinners and by 1953 they were up to 1.27 million dinners, even through WW2 years, every year was a new record high. Guess what … absolutely no austerity at all. We are always warned by the bought and paid economists from Harvard and Berkeley that less government spending and debt will bring on severe austerity like we are seeing in the EU now where their citizens are rioting. Yet the key here is that the domination of government over the private sector in business and markets via a corrupt monetary regime has brought this austerity. You cannot tell me that the per capita private debt in 1953 of $10,315, low by any ones standards today meant severe austerity, otherwise Knott's Berry Farm would be out of business in 1953. Yet go to the Knott's Berry Farm website of today and the $2 Chicken Dinners are gone replaced by financing offers of $14 per month just to get in the park. LINK:
1953 MENU:
The reality was back then that we were told over and over by the experts, even our parents, to save for retirement. Yet nobody warned us that our own government central bank would eventually destroy our savings faster than we could save. Social Security and Medicare would work if I was paid in 1970 dollars in 2020 when I retire. I agree it is not entitlement since we all paid into the system, but the portion that was "entitlement" was the governments entitlement to destroy the value of our contributions and savings. Not only do seniors not get paid in 1970 dollars, but now the US Fed and its FFR of 0.25% is yet another slap  in the face. 
I would encourage the younger readers here to take that seriously and not look at baby boomers as having all the advantages in life, because we have all been stripped of our our civil rights in that our own currency has discriminated against all of us 100%! That is why I always write that there is no 1% or 99% since when it comes to lost monetary value resulting in destroyed labor units we are all the 100%, even the US government that has thrown trillions into public works infrastructure for decades has been victimized.
On a global basis I see no other more important factor to survival of mankind than to reform the entire monetary system that is currently so corrupt as to force debt servitude onto every global citizen no matter age or gender or ethnicity. Now we watch Europe and see the same corrupt union of bankers and politicians that have pushed the Euro onto all of Europe that has gone beyond just citizens and enslaved entire countries into debt servitude without firing a single shot! If only Hitler would have thought of the Euro he might still be ruling Europe, but instead he did it the old fashioned and unsophisticated barbaric way by bombing entire continents into submission. Still the 1937 Hitler 1000 Thousand Year Reich and the 1999 Euro Thousand Year Reich will both end the same way. Essentially our Founding Fathers tried to impress the radical idea that governments never succeed in governing without the consent of the governed. Few modern politicians have figured that out? Right now there are more citizens in the world who are non-consenting than ever. Yet the politicians of these failed debt experiments fail to see their own flaws and resort to Gestapo tactics of yester year to control the flow of funds. Not a good idea … 

The book that got me thinking along this line is Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.

The most fundamental part of the erosion is so elusively obvious that it boggles the mind. It boils down to "I have my money and I have my car, so I DON"T NEED YOU". Our developmental environment  during childhood where we are not confronted with the absolute limits of reality including first hand exposure to death, hunger and work to the point of exhaustion powered by our fossil-fueled 150 energy slaves has us not get past very terrible twos. Furthermore so many alienated/lonely parents need their children's constant affection so badly that we compound this by not transmitting even little pieces of absolute limits and socialization to them. The result: the greatest luxury of being a consumer being "I DON'T NEED YOU" (and if we have a conflict, it is your fault and I'm out of here). I will substitute having real relationships grounded in material interdependence with perverted imagined/projections of them whether it be electronically or based on strutting my glossy stuff , imagining that I am esteemed.This is a predictable result of how our brains are "wired" and the changes in our immediate/real economy.