Study: Americans still reach out to each other

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are deeply involved in their communities despite being wary of each other and distrustful of government, says a study released Thursday that challenges the idea that civic life is in decline.
A national poll by the Pew Research Center, combined with a case study of the Philadelphia area, found high rates of socializing and community interest along with significant levels of volunteering.
Almost two-thirds of Americans said they had done volunteer work in the last month, and one-third had been to a public affairs meeting in the last year. Blacks were more likely to distrust other people but also more likely to volunteer.
“It stands in contrast to signs of people turning inward,” said Andrew Kohut, Pew research director. “There’s a whole broad range of social networks that seem to be alive and well.”
Overall, Philadelphians were less inclined to volunteer than Americans at large– 49 percent had done so in the last month, compared with 61 percent of people nationally.
Even so, 60 percent of those surveyed in Philadelphia felt they could get neighbors to work together on a problem — and 41 percent had already done so. The typical Philadelphian engaged in some type of social activity — often the church or the gym — 14 times in the last month.
“People still join,” said Don Eberly, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, which works for civic renewal. “They just hedge their bets a bit more.”
If Americans are still joiners, they are suspicious of others, too.
Only family, fellow church members, local fire departments and bosses enjoyed strong trust from a majority of Americans and Philadelphians in the Pew report.
The typical American is not inclined to trust most people and holds particularly dim views of federal and state government, that survey and others indicate.
Still, majorities nationally and locally felt that people try to be helpful most of the time.
Other research, including the highly publicized “Bowling Alone” essay by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam in 1995, pointed to increasing social isolation.
Philadelphia is the base for the Pew Charitable Trusts, and its choice for the yearlong study was not connected with President Clinton’s three-day conference on community service planned there later this month.
The study found 34 percent of Americans and 30 percent in the metropolitan area went to a public affairs meeting in the last year.
Previous surveys, including some cited by Putnam, had put the figure on civic-meeting attendance as low as 13 percent.
The discrepancy in findings is explained in part by the value placed by researchers on various forms of social interaction.
In tracing declining memberships in unions, fraternal organizations, bowling leagues and more, Putnam acknowledged growth in other places where people meet. But he argued those forums, such as self-help or hobby groups, don’t promote bonds like traditional civic organizations do.
The Pew research suggests important relationships are often formed at groups discounted by those with more pessimistic conclusions.
For example, 82 percent of Philadelphians who go to reading or study groups and 64 percent of those in sports groups feel close enough to others in that activity to request help with a personal problem.
“The means and nature of social connections may be changing, but people are still linked meaningfully to one another,” the study said.
It found no relationship between people’s distrust of each other and their willingness to get involved in the community– both were high.
In measuring civic engagement, Eberly said, too much emphasis can be placed on the decline of large and old organizations like fraternal clubs. It may be simply that their time has passed.
The Pew study was based on focus groups, followed by a poll of 2,517 adults in Philadelphia and four adjoining counties Nov. 13-Dec. 8 and a poll of 1,003 adults nationally Feb. 6-9. The margins of error are 2 percentage points for the local survey and 4 points for the national one.