The Book Club

Whither the PTA?

Dear Bob,

I’ll get to the question of whether “community bonds” matter in a moment. As a preview, let me repeat that we are indeed closer in agreement on that issue than we are the current state of quiet desperation in America, though I doubt we’ll be high-fiving each other in solidarity anytime soon.

But first, let’s linger over the evidence for widespread “social isolation” a few minutes more. You write that, “When I present my argument to public audiences … there is lots of lively debate about the implications of Americans’ growing social isolation, but virtually no one questions the facts, because ordinary Americans know that what I’ve described fits their own experience.” Two things jump out at me: For starters, such audiences are largely self-selecting, so such unanimity is hardly surprising. And are those really “ordinary Americans” in the crowd? What is an “ordinary American” anyway? That’s not simply a rhetorical question: I’m sure you’ll agree that it is in fact extremely difficult to grasp lived social reality with any sort of precision, especially in as large and varied a country such as our own. That’s a major reason why, as I said in my first post, data will never be fully definitive in such matters.

But what about that data? Let’s consider your book’s chapter on “Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy.” As you note, that trio “is by some measures a central measure of social capital.” Far from presenting a clear-cut picture of demise, the data show that something much more complicated is going on, as you suggest. You note that between 1975 and 1999, overall rates for volunteering have gone up, even after factoring in declines among 31- to 40-year-olds. At the same time, there has been a decline in “participation in community projects” (which seems canceled out by the earlier stat). Nothing in such data strikes me as particularly alarming. Indeed, when one factors in lifestyle changes (e.g., people getting married and having kids later in life; two-income households), the dip among 31- to 40-year-olds makes sense; it’s a pretty good assumption that as today’s thirtysomethings get older, once their careers are more established and their kids are a bit more self-sufficient, they’ll volunteer more too. As for philanthropy, you grant that between 1960 and 1995, “real per capita giving doubled,” from about $280 to $522 (in 1993 dollars). Yet the scold in you makes that cause for concern because the increase in giving didn’t match the real growth in our disposable income (“real per capita spending on flowers, seeds, and potted plants almost tripled, and real per capita spending on all recreational goods and services combined … nearly quadrupled”). In your post, you seemed to grant that we’re a prosperous nation; maybe a doubling in real philanthropic giving is all that’s called for in today’s America. And that’s coming from someone who works for a nonprofit, incidentally.

Let me exhume once again the corpse of Everett Ladd on this score, as he suggests another reason why your tallies of despair–however technically accurate–may measure less than they seem to. You chart “the rise and fall of the PTA, 1910-1997” in Figure 9 of your book, noting that since 1960, it’s all been downhill for that once-popular organization. “One need not romanticize PTA meetings of the 1950s to recognize that many Americans nowadays are less involved with their kids’ education,” you write. Nobody, I think, will contest the data that PTA membership has declined. But it’s a major mistake to rely on the PTA as a marker for parental involvement in education. As Ladd pointed out, “[t]he real reason PTA membership fell off wasn’t that parents stopped participating; rather they associated increasingly with groups other than the PTA. … This was a big deal for the PTA. … But it has nothing to do with developments in civic America.” Indeed, more parents participated in school-board meetings in 1995 than in 1969 (39 percent vs. 16 percent), and roughly the same percentage of parents signed up for “school service groups” in 1994 as did in 1974 (32 percent). What’s more, between 1983 and 1994, other indicators of parental involvement–meetings with teachers, attending school plays and concerts, attending athletic events, etc.–were all also sharply up (again, this is something that comports with my own experience; all my friends who teach in grammar and high schools complain that they have too much contact, not too little, with parents these days). Let’s not confuse the demise of the PTA–or other easily counted organizations–with the end of civil society.

For someone taught not to speak ill of the dead, incidentally, you do deliver a seemingly devastating critique of Ladd’s figures on political involvement. However, his chapter in The Ladd Report on political involvement is in fact much more nuanced and multi-sourced than you suggest. Far from citing polls from only ‘81, ‘90, and ‘95, he offers a host of measures on voting and other activities that date back to the ‘40s and up through the ‘90s; many of these measures do show some declines in certain activities. But let me grant for argument’s sake your “steady long-term declines of 40 percent to 50 percent since the early 1970s” in “political participation.” Why draw a sinister implication from such a trend? Simply because people are no longer interested in affiliating with the Democrats or Republicans is no sign of apocalypse. Indeed, it may be a sign of sanity. Whatever time people might have devoted to such activities is now being spent engaging in other sorts of (often social) behavior, ranging from volunteer work to taking vacations to going to movies to watching TV to checking out the Internet. I assume that people find this sort of thing more rewarding, which might make their lives a little happier, if less noble to some.

So what about those “community bonds”? Do they matter or not? Well, Bob, it all depends–on the nature of the bonds and the terms under which they operate. I’m glad a lot of organizations have taken it on the chin; sad that some others can no longer draw flies. As you yourself point out in your book, social capital enables everything from the PTA to Oklahoma City bombers. I’ve benefited mightily from certain connections (and have mightily benefited others) and have gotten screwed because I didn’t have other connections. The most important of those connections, though, are unlikely to show up on any sociologist’s radar screen. Can you grant that there may be real, meaningful networks of association and meaning out there that may not show up in official counts? And that maybe these networks help explain why things are going so well when your thesis about eroding trust and reciprocity says the opposite should be happening?

This much seems certain to me: At least since World War II, America has gotten a lot richer and more educated across the board. And not uncoincidentally, a lot more antinomian. It’s a hell of a lot harder today to make people do things they don’t want to do, to regiment them along any single idea of the good or proper life. That doesn’t mean contemporary America doesn’t have community. It just means that people have more options to sign up with or to walk away from. Which isn’t a bad thing.