The Great Recession of the 20th century may very well have a silver lining. Once upon a time the notion of troubling a neighbor for a cup of sugar or flour was an everyday occurrence in America. During and after the only other economic crisis to be given the designation of "Great", Americans utilized the informal system of bartering to supplement sparse foodstuffs they couldn't afford themselves. The idea of borrowing and sharing created a communal system that fostered trust and reinforced interdependence amongst groups from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Over the past twenty-five years, the exorbitant increase in the American standard of living has had an inverse affect on our tendencies to borrow and share. With millions of Americans enjoying a flourishing economy, the idea of Keeping up with the Jones' was given new meaning and the term community development was reserved for poor neighborhoods filled with America's underprivileged.
For all the Americans migrating to major cities and the immigrants arriving on our shores over the past century, this sense of community was the expectation not the exception. The recent age of overconsumption has caused the middle class to become less dependent on one another creating a level of independence that altered the traditional idea of community as we all envisioned it.
For decades we have debated the role and importance of the middle class. Ironically, while we debated, countries around the world have sought to replicate the model of a middle class we have yet to perfect. The recent 2010 Ideas Festival sponsored by the Aspen Institute, thought so much of the subject that it assembled a panel of experts [including Huffington Post co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington] to discuss Is America The Land of Opportunity: Taking a Hard Look at the Middle Class. One "Great Idea" emerging from the discussion was the notion that though the current economic crisis has brought devastation to millions of Americans, it can very well be the means by which America returns to the very system of community that formed the foundation for the country's first middle class. For all the stories about the devastation brought on by the crisis millions of Americans are going through, there very well may be a silver lining awaiting them on the other end.
In small towns and major cities around the country, Americans are choosing to use the institutions that were historically established to develop and strengthen communities. Formal institutions like the Community College are, for some, a way to better prepare for a 4-year college, but for many it's a cost saver. The Pew Research Center and U.S. Census Bureau have reported a continuous increase in Community College enrollment due, in part, to the decline in household income brought on by the crisis. Approximately 11.5 million students, or 39.6% of all young adults ages 18 to 24, were enrolled in either a two- or four-year college in October 2008.
Informal institutions, like carpools, often overlooked but incredibly important to building and sustaining community relations, are on the rise as well. The rise and fall of the American carpool: 1970-1990, suggested that the most important factors associated with declines in carpooling to and from work in the US included increasing household vehicle availability, falling real marginal fuel costs, and higher average educational attainments among commuters. The economic crisis has reversed each of these indicators and, invariably, aided in the re-establishment of an institution on the decline.
Necessity is still the mother of invention and the motivation to do more and invest further in one's community has traditionally come down to need. Budget cuts in public schooling and policing has brought with it an increase in the need for volunteerism in our schools and in Neighborhood Watch groups. As cuts in the number of classroom teachers will invariably increase student-teacher ratios, already overworked teachers will have additional demands placed on them. In cases like these, the community will be called upon to fill in the gaps. Fortunately, in the case of public safety, we have seen how effective ordinary citizens can be if integrated into a larger system. Increases to participation in community institutions like Neighborhood Watch have resulted in a decrease in the crime rate as much as 41% in places like Orlando, Florida.
With all the talk about preserving the institution of marriage and strengthening the American family, there has been little discussion about creating communities and institutions that can act as a support system or safety net for the families in times of need. The need is even more pronounced in single-parent homes that depend on extended family members, friends, and neighbors for emotional and financial support.
The early 20th century American concept of community exists in the developing world and South Africans have even given it a name: Umbuntu. South Africans believe a person is a person, through other people and that only through strong personal relationships do we create and sustain community. The long-term benefits of a resurgence of America's community-based institutions like Community Colleges and Neighborhood Watch can very well usher in the revival of community. Americans will rebound, the unemployment rate will improve, and if we've learned from our past, what will remain will be a middle class less preoccupied with overconsumption and more prepared to live a lifestyle of moderation and interdependence. If America can sustain the community institutions that have been built during this crisis, America will in fact stronger for it. Ultimately, Americans will be better prepared to support themselves and, most importantly, one another through the next economic crisis.
Curtis Valentine is a humanitarian aid professional, community organizer, and political consultant. A 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar Fellow, Curtis is currently drafting a memoir documenting his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in post-apartheid South Africa.