Love Thy Neighbor? Not in L.A.

Community: Angelenos are among the least
trusting, according to a national  survey by a Harvard researcher.

By  PETER Y. HONG, L.A. Times Staff Writer

Want a neighbor you can count on? Move to Montana.  That's one conclusion you might draw from a Harvard University study  released today, which finds that Los Angeles residents trust each other less  than most other Americans.  The study is billed as the largest-ever survey on "civic engagement"--activities such as joining social or community groups, voting and simply making friends. It also found that the civic engagement of Los Angeles residents is more likely to be determined by education and income levels than in any other place. And it links L.A.'s low standing to the area's ethnic diversity.  Those who live in more homogeneous places, such as New Hampshire,  Montana or Lewiston, Maine, do more with friends and are more involved in  community affairs or politics than residents of more cosmopolitan areas, the  study said.  Los Angeles residents are among the least trusting of people such as  neighbors, co-workers, shop clerks and police, the study said. L.A. tied with  Boston, Chicago and eastern Tennessee. Only north Minneapolis scored worse.  Angelenos also trust people of other races less than residents of just about everywhere else. San Diego tied Los Angeles' dismal "inter-racial  trust" score. The only cities that did worse were Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C.  The best places, in terms of trusting others and those of other races, were  Bismarck, N.D., and rural South Dakota, the study said.  In other categories, L.A. was 16th in joining associations, 16th in  diversity of friendships, 17th in volunteering, 21st in participating in  political protests or activist groups, 23rd in joining groups devoted to  school or local government, 23rd in "faith-based engagement," 33rd in informal socializing, 36th in voting, interest in politics and newspaper  reading, and last in "social capital equality"--the gap between civic  participation of rich and poor. The survey of 30,000 Americans in 40 communities was led by Harvard  political scientist Robert D. Putnam.  It was a task right up Putnam's alley. He has been a favorite of pundits and politicians since the publication six years ago of a journal article titled "Bowling Alone," which found Americans were not only voting less, but  also joining fewer bowling leagues, skipping PTA meetings and even dining  together as families less often.  Putnam's popularity led to a "Bowling Alone" book elaborating his ideas  for building "social capital."  It also brought a windfall of more tangible  capital: more than $1 million in foundation grants to pay for projects such  as the survey.  Putnam calls the study a "community physical" from which  prescriptions can be drawn to cure the nation's participatory palsy. He wants  Americans to spend more time with one another, and less on things such as watching television or surfing the Internet. (Putnam's assistant said he was too busy to talk to a reporter, and suggested the reporter send him an  e-mail.)  Some criticism has followed Putnam's success. He has been accused at  times of blaming social malaise for problems with more than one cause.  Putnam's catchy book title comes from his observation that while more Americans are bowling today than ever, fewer do so in organized leagues. That fact may well be a sign of declining trust and community.  But it could also be the result of technological leaps that have made  league bowling a far costlier hobby than it was in the 1970s. For example, competitive bowlers today often keep an arsenal of several different bowling  balls to match various lane surfaces, as well as other equipment that can  cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  Authors of the civic engagement survey said they were troubled by the  fact that ethnically diverse communities had the lowest level of involvement and were the most divided by wealth and education levels. They found, for  example, that in diverse places such as Los Angeles, Houston or Yakima,  Wash., college graduates were four or five times more likely to be involved in politics than those who did not complete high school.  In more homogeneous  Montana and New Hampshire, by contrast, the class gaps were half as large. Two other variables could lower civic engagement--a higher number of noncitizens (who cannot vote), and the sheer size of a community.  The study  said it had adjusted its findings with both variables in mind, but did not explain its methodology.  
    

The low civic engagement attributed to ethnically diverse places could in many cases may also be a consequence of their size: People in larger cities are often more isolated from government and each other.  With a few exceptions, the communities identified as ethnically diverse are also the largest. The exceptions were Baton Rouge, La., Birmingham, Ala., Greensboro, N.C., and Yakima. They are identified as ethnically diverse because their proportion of minority residents puts them in the top third of the 40 communities surveyed. But they contain nowhere near the variety of ethnic and religious groups present in a place like Los Angeles.  Large and diverse cities like New York, Miami and the Washington, D.C. area--places likely to provide some of the most meaningful comparisons to Los Angeles--were not included in the study. Such omissions were a consequence of  the way the study was conducted.  Individual surveys were taken by
philanthropic foundations in each  community. Allan Parachini, a consultant who is promoting the survey, said  the study was proposed by Putnam at a national gathering of community foundation representatives, and the first foundations to sign up took part in  the study.  Eleanor Brown, a Pomona College economist who is an advisor to the  study, acknowledges that the lack of data from New York and other big cities  makes the data less complete.  "There may be questions about the nature of  big-city America we can't answer with this survey," she said.  In her analysis of the survey's Los Angeles results, Brown found that  Los Angeles residents become more trusting the longer they live in the area.  Among those who have lived in Los Angeles five years or less, only 29% feel  people can generally be trusted. That figure jumps to 46% for those who have  lived here longer.  Thus, the high levels of mistrust in Los Angeles could be based at least  partly on the area's high proportion of newcomers. Forty percent of Angelenos  surveyed had lived in their communities less than five years, compared to 29% of the national sample.

NOTE: Article taken from the LA Times.

March 09, 2001