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