We don't bowl alone
Survey of Kalamazoo County's strengths
shows informal connections are strong

Thursday, March 1, 2001

BY BARBARA WALTERS
KALAMAZOO GAZETTE
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As young wives, they began gathering in each other's homes nearly 20 years
ago, sewing, laughing and occasionally crying together over coffee and
dessert.

"A silly, really cool group," is the way Anne Lipsey described it. She's
still a member of the group after 18 years.

That kind of informal activity, or "schmoozing," is the type of interaction
Kalamazoo County residents do most - more than formal, organized
participation in church, civic or other organizations, according to a survey
released today by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

And while "schmoozing" has its silly side - Lipsey's group once fashioned a
bridal bouquet out of french fries for laughs - its social bonds have
serious value in a community, say social scientists and others watching out
for America's civic health.

"Schmoozing" is one of 13 categories used to measure the way people interact
in a nationwide survey of "social capital" released today.

The survey compares Kalamazoo County and 39 other communities and was
developed primarily by the author of "Bowling Alone," Harvard professor
Robert Putnam.

"Bowling Alone" touched a national nerve by detailing how the drastic drop
in Americans' participation in bowling leagues, service organizations,
neighborhood picnics and other social interactions has created deep fissures
in the nation's well-being, from education, health and happiness to safety
and economic security.

The "Social Capital Benchmark Survey," created in response to that book, was
sponsored by community foundations across America.

A score of 100 is expected for communities of similar size and demographics
in the survey. A score above 100 indicates more "social capital" in a
particular category.

"Kalamazoo does pretty well across the board," said David Hartmann of the
Kercher Center for Social Research at Western Michigan University. He and
Craig Tollini of Kercher led the telephone survey of 500 local residents.

After its high "schmoozing" score of 132, Kalamazoo County's next highest
score came in the diversity-of-friendships category, which measures how well
people make friends across racial, economic, gender and other lines. Here,
the county scored 111.

Kalamazoo County's score for residents' membership in formal organizations
was also above average, at 109. The survey found good participation in
groups ranging from sport leagues to service, art and nature groups.

Scores above 100 show available "social capital" that can be tapped,
Hartmann said.

"The question now is, will that social capital we have in Kalamazoo County
be activated for the community good?" he said. "Will it be translated into
action?"

With those questions in mind, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation has planned
forums later this spring using survey data, according to Gloria Royal of the
Foundation.

The Foundation also is accepting grant proposals that focus on getting
people involved in decision making processes, promoting the idea of helping
neighbors and providing youth with leadership opportunities.

"Think about this data as the beginning of the discussion, not the
conclusion," Hartmann said.

Kalamazoo County's lowest score - 89 - was in conventional politics. Many
communities across the country scored low in that category, but the county's
score "indicates a need to investigate more fully if individuals feel they
are actively engaged in local, state and national political processes,"
Hartmann said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kalamazoo County's "schmoozing index"
shows its fondness for informal connections, such as going out with friends
after work or having a mother-in-law over for Sunday dinner.

Those kinds of bonds may not sound valuable, but they are, Hartmann said.

"Communities high in informal associations have those links available for
other kinds of work," he said. "These communities are well-poised to take on
issues when they arise.

"It's not a 'good old boys' network," he added. "These are connections which
reach across a lot of social lines."

For instance, when Lipsey badly needed a volunteer to help out temporarily
at Loaves and Fishes, a food source for low-income people, she turned to her
"schmooze" group. One of the members agreed to help and became a valued
staff member for the organization.

That's the kind of powerful social chain reaction Putnam described when he
spoke in Kalamazoo last year at a community meeting sponsored by the
Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

Formal or informal, social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life
satisfaction and community vitality, according to Putnam. In terms of
personal well-being, attending a club meeting regularly is equivalent to
doubling your income, he said.

"Social capital is also a strong predictor of personal health," according to
Putnam.

"If you smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the
riskier," he said. "On the community level, the loss of social capital is
reflected in critical ways: higher crime rates, lower educational
performance, and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low-birth-weight babies
and infant mortality."

Kalamazoo County scored 103 on social trust. Those surveyed were asked
whether they trusted others in their neighborhood, at work or in church and
whether they trusted local police.

The community's faith-based social-capital score was 99. It measured
membership in religious communities, attendance at religious services and
participation in church-related activities.

Kalamazoo County had a racial-group-trust score of 99. That measured how
well people trust racial groups other than their own.

The county's protest-politics index was 108, indicating a high level of
participation in labor unions, civil rights organizations and political
groups.

It also scored 108 in giving and volunteering.

Its organizational-activism score was 98, which showed people in similar
communities are slightly more active in organizations in attendance and
service than in Kalamazoo County.

"We are looking very well compared to communities like ours, and in
particular informal socializing," said Royal.


Reprinted courtesy of the Kalamazoo Gazette.