BY DANNY DE GRACIA AND CASSIE ANN SUMIMOTO – As America marks ten years since the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, one lesson that endures is that human life is fragile and in an instant, crisis can strike anywhere at any time. It is important that we as a nation recognize that our changing world presents challenges which make the importance of close-knit, well connected friends, family and local community a critical part of preparedness for this decade and beyond.
One of the first things that 9/11 immediately revealed was the condition of our nation’s social capital. Social capital, as the two of us define it, refers to the “infrastructure” of human relationships – meaningful connections and active association with other people, circles of influence, interest, emotional intimacy and so forth. In 1995, Harvard Kennedy School of Government political science professor Robert D. Putnam warned about a phenomenon he called “Bowling Alone” in a book titled by the same name about how America is doing more things alone – from bowling to living life with increasingly impersonal relationships.
When 9/11 happened, many Americans who were unsure of the fate of their loved ones or were stranded somewhere were thrown into a lurch with no dependable person to turn to and few social networks to lean on for support. Millions of Americans flocked to churches, synagogues and other places of worship that were scaled for declining memberships and were every bit as unprepared as the people coming to them.
Telemarketers even reported people calling their lines just to have a human voice to talk to. While America ultimately handled the crisis admirably and with great resourcefulness, the incident revealed that when bad things happen it is important to have social capital that we can reach out and rely on.
In today’s society of text messages and 140-character status updates, Americans may be able to immediately communicate with more people than ever before but the actual social capital of our nation continues to decline. Across the nation, active participation in voluntary organizations – be they religious, political or social – has continued to decline since the mid-1990s. This is a phenomenon that has significant implications not just for how we can absorb the stressors of another national emergency or regional disaster, but also for democracy in general which is based on shared interests and associations.
In plain language, when we as a community have quality relationships and spend time with one another, we are able to more effectively know and meet each other’s needs. Both sociologists and political scientists alike view declines in voluntary associations as being potentially detrimental to the democratic health of the nation. As a point in case, 1960, 63.1% of the voting population turned out to vote. In the 2008 cycle, 56.8% participated, while in last year’s midterm elections, only 37.8% turned out. Are these trends related to declining social capital? We believe so.
An ancient text famously says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We as a people need to recognize that the world around us is changing in ways that need a closer, more active community that cares. In particular, the radical swings of the global economy underline the need to have reliable support structures both in immediate family and friends and in the local community to cushion those in need. Let’s not wait till another disaster strikes to show us just how fragile we all are and how much we still need each other.
Danny de Gracia, II is a political scientist and a member of the Waipahu Neighborhood Board. Cassie Ann Sumimoto is the former 2009 Miss Teen United States World and a community advocate against domestic violence.