Kids Count Indicators: 2004-2005

(Originally published October 2008)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kid’s Count is an Annie E. Casey funded project which tracks the well being of children in the United States, state by state and nationally. Washington State’s overall ranking on Kids Count indicators in 2004-5 was 13 out of 50 (highest rank state is 1, lowest rank state is 50). The twelve highest ranking states in 2004-5 were (in order): Minnesota, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Utah, Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa, North Dakota, New Jersey, Nebraska, Hawaii and Wisconsin. All but two of these states are in the upper Midwest or the northeast.

 

The twelve lowest ranking states in 2004-05 were Mississippi (50), Louisiana, Alabama, New Mexico, South Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Alaska (38), mostly Southern states and / or states with high poverty rates.

 

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone ( published in 2000), reflects at length on the relationship between child development and social capital, that is, the extent to which “residents (of states and communities) trust other people, join organizations, volunteer, vote and socialize with friends.” According to Putnam, “the correlation between high social capital and positive child development is as close to perfect as social scientists ever find in data analyses of this sort.” The states with high social capital are also the states with the best rankings on Kids Count indicators. In Chapter 17, “Education and Children’s Welfare,” Putnam asks whether the extent of social capital is directly linked to child well being, as measured by Kids Count indicators, or whether other factors influence both social capital and child well being. In other words, is there a causal connection between social capital, i.e., social connectedness, and child well being or is there merely a strong association?

 

Washington State is in the second tier of states on Putnam’s measure of social capital, with a lower rank than some states in the upper Midwest and New England but a higher rank than most other states. Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming have approximately equal social capital scores and are at the bottom of the top fifth to fourth of states in social capital rankings.

 

Putnam asserts that “across the various Kids Count indicators, social capital is second only to poverty in the breadth and depth of its effects on children’s lives.” States with high social capital scores have better educational outcomes, lower rates of teen pregnancy, lower murder rates, lower mortality rates and better public health, according to Putnam. “As a rough rule of thumb, Putnam writes, “if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss- up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.” As social participation declines, so generally does adults’ health, Putnam claims.

 

Putnam advocates for ways of building civic engagement and social connectedness. Putnam believes that American families should watch less TV and participate in more recreational activities from group dancing to songfests, community theater groups, book clubs and other recreational activities which bring people into more frequent interactions around shared interests.

 

Putnam believes that a more politically involved electorate would also be a physically healthier electorate. However, what Putnam does not explain is how increased social interaction leads to an increased sense of responsibility for community well being. States with the highest social capital rankings (and best Kids Count indicators) are typically states with large populations of citizens with a Scandinavian heritage or states settled long ago by religious communities with strong communal traditions. The historical experience of a community or society having to pull together to survive apparently has long term benefits; in the absence of such experiences or in the face of experiences in which individuals had to leave communities to survive or gain social acceptance, it is difficult to believe that participation in a bowling league would contribute to social health anymore than bowling alone.

 

Putnam discusses at length generational differences in rates of civic engagement and social connectedness (e.g., membership in voluntary associations, frequency of social contact with friends and extended family). The generation which grew up prior to World War II has a much higher rate of civic engagement and social connections than the generations which came after them. “It is as though the post war generations were exposed to some anti-civic x-ray that permanently and increasingly rendered them less likely to connect with the community,” Putnam writes. Putting aside for a moment the question of what this “anti-civic x-ray” might be,  the generation which came of age during World War II lived through a war which threatened the nation’s existence and which required an enhanced level of social cohesion. Coming of age during the Great Depression did not have the same positive effect on rates of civic engagement and social connection, Putnam’s data indicates. Putnam believes that “as a rough summary it seems fair to say that about half of the overall decline in social capital and civic engagement can be traced to generational change. “ Putnam acknowledges that to appeal to generational change as an explanation for declining social capital is merely to reformulate the puzzle. Why has the generational change occurred?

 

While social activities and involvement in voluntary associations may not create a strong sense of social responsibility for the community as a whole, Putnam presents compelling evidence that reductions in these activities and associations chip way at social capital. The individualistic strains of American culture lead to perceptions of persons outside the family as competitors, obstacles or, worse yet, threats; to put it mildly, these views and perceptions do not build community spirit. Social activities offer other ways of experiencing contact with acquaintances and relative strangers. The manner in which community members schmooze (or not), adds to or detracts from a concern for the common good, according to Putnam. 

 

Putnam identifies pressures on time related to economic concerns, the growth of suburbs, use of television as a primary form of entertainment and generational differences as the main factors which have led to a steady decline in social capital since 1965. This is a disappointing denouement to a brilliant investigation of a fascinating social mystery in which Putnam displays exceptional skills and discernment in sorting through a large body of evidence only to finger superficial agents of change while the main principals slip out the back door.

 

Putnam understands that historical experiences create powerful cultural traditions of sharing and mutual concern or of disregard, division and a zero sum contest for social / economic goods; but he passes over this discussion too quickly. What do coming of age in World War II, having a Scandinavian heritage or growing up in a state settled by religious communities with communal traditions have in common? How have slavery, a virulent racial caste system, extreme degrees of income inequality and migration and immigration patterns which weakened ethnic bonds diminished social capital in southern states?

 

Putnam offers astute comments on these subjects but nevertheless does not include historical experiences in his explanatory model. Pursuing this line of inquiry would have led to a more satisfactory conclusion to Bowling Alone; and it would lead thoughtful readers to reflect on how communities or societies can increase social connectedness and a sense of social responsibility for the common good without social travail in which citizens by necessity come to view one another as a source of strength and safety rather than as competitors or threats.

 

Hope springs eternal among child advocates that communities will come together to prevent child abuse and neglect, combat gang activity, promote children’s educational achievement and make programmatic investments in the well being of children. One implication of Bowling Alone is that programs, as valuable as they often are, cannot compensate for the lack of community spirit and social connectedness. One of the strengths of Bowling Alone is Putnam’s detailed descriptions of how social capital influences children’s development both inside and outside the public policy arena. The question which Putnam does not adequately answer is how cultural traditions which build or detract from community bonds can be strengthened or altered in a purposeful way. Putnam urges individuals to join organizations or socialize more with friends and neighbors but what can communities do to combat the powerful centrifugal forces of American society? Bowling Alone cries out for a sequel.

  

deewilson13@aol.com

    

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