One sunny day several years ago as my family took in our town’s annual Memorial Day parade, an amiable-seeming man bounded up to my two small children and presented them with miniature American flags before quickly moving on down the route. Touched, I turned to my neighbor to inquire who this public-spirited individual was. My neighbor shot me a quizzical look, as if unsure whether or not I was pulling his leg. “The mayor” he ultimately replied, a continued note of skepticism in his voice. I had been living in our town for nearly five years by that point. As I would later learn, my children’s flag-bearing benefactor had been in office for most of that time.
How is it that someone comes to live in a place for almost half a decade without being able to recognize its mayor? Or to recall his name once he has been identified as such? Or even to be sure of his political party (which I could guess at given our town’s pronounced leanings in national elections, but that I wouldn’t have bet the farm on given the possibility of idiosyncratic results at the local level)? In particular, how do these things happen when the clueless someone in question is a person who had always considered himself politically and socially engaged—aware of important legislation being considered in Congress, familiar with major cases pending before the Supreme Court, well read on the significant public policy issues of our day?
It is against such shortsightedness—the tendency of all too many of us to ignore what is going on in our own backyards—that Seth D. Kaplan delivers a desperately needed warning in his new book Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time. At first blush, Kaplan would seem an unlikely evangelist for the importance of focusing on the local. An expert on fragile nation-states, Kaplan has spent his career working with organizations like the World Bank and the U.S. State Department in places like Nigeria, Colombia, Libya, and Yemen. Surely this is a man for whom what happens in individual neighborhoods is small beer as compared with the important work of running a country? Yet for Kaplan, when comparing two countries and asking why one has succeeded where the other has failed, what matters most is not national policies but “societal dynamics—the strength of the social glue, the nature of relationships across groups, and the role of social institutions.” These are things that manifest (or fail to manifest) at the local level. The social health of our neighborhoods “determines how safe we are, the quality of the schools our kids go to, what resources we have access to daily, the kinds of job opportunities we have, our psychological well-being, and even . . . how long we live.” It also shapes, in Kaplan’s view, the state of the nation.
Which is bad news for the United States given Kaplan’s assessment that “the social decay we are experiencing in neighborhoods across America is unlike anything [he has] seen elsewhere.” This is a startling statement given the many troubled corners of the globe where Kaplan has hung his hat. As distressed as those places are, the people in them “are simply much warmer, their relationships much thicker than what [he has] experienced in countless neighborhoods here in the US.” Americans “don’t feel obligated to help our neighbors, give back to our community, or even (in many cases) care for members of our own family—and we resist joining any group or association that might create such obligations.” The result? We are “some of the most depressed, anxious, addicted, alienated, and untethered people in the world.” Not even material wealth is sufficient to protect against the effects of social poverty, with many of these problems plaguing middle- and upper-class neighborhoods as well.
The fundamental flaw besetting traditional approaches to social reform, according to Kaplan, is that they are typically top-down, one-size-supposedly-fits-all “solutions” that take no account of the unique dynamics of the specific places that are to be reformed—the particular challenges facing a given community and the assets already at its disposal for meeting those challenges. As Kaplan notes, even where initiatives succeed at relieving distress in the short run, they will ultimately have done more harm than good if they undermine the local social institutions necessary for a community to thrive over the long haul. It is not that there is no role for politics or national policy. According to Kaplan, both “[g]overnment assistance (a tool of the left) and more efficient markets (as favored by the right)” are necessary. But these interventions will be effective only insofar as they work through and are supportive of local social institutions.