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Love Thy Neighbor? Not in L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want a neighbor you can count on? Move to Montana.

That’s one conclusion you might draw from a Harvard University study released today, which finds that Los Angeles residents trust each other less than most other Americans.

The study is billed as the largest-ever survey on “civic engagement"--activities such as joining social or community groups, voting and simply making friends. It also found that the civic engagement of Los Angeles residents is more likely to be determined by education and income levels than in any other place. And it links L.A.'s low standing to the area’s ethnic diversity.

Those who live in more homogeneous places, such as New Hampshire, Montana or Lewiston, Maine, do more with friends and are more involved in community affairs or politics than residents of more cosmopolitan areas, the study said.

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Los Angeles residents are among the least trusting of people such as neighbors, co-workers, shop clerks and police, the study said. L.A. tied with Boston, Chicago and eastern Tennessee. Only north Minneapolis scored worse.

Angelenos also trust people of other races less than residents of just about everywhere else. San Diego tied Los Angeles’ dismal “inter-racial trust” score. The only cities that did worse were Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C. The best places, in terms of trusting others and those of other races, were Bismarck, N.D., and rural South Dakota, the study said.

In other categories, L.A. was 16th in joining associations, 16th in diversity of friendships, 17th in volunteering, 21st in participating in political protests or activist groups, 23rd in joining groups devoted to school or local government, 23rd in “faith-based engagement,” 33rd in informal socializing, 36th in voting, interest in politics and newspaper reading, and last in “social capital equality"--the gap between civic participation of rich and poor.

The survey of 30,000 Americans in 40 communities was led by Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam.

It was a task right up Putnam’s alley. He has been a favorite of pundits and politicians since the publication six years ago of a journal article titled “Bowling Alone,” which found Americans were not only voting less, but also joining fewer bowling leagues, skipping PTA meetings and even dining together as families less often.

Putnam’s popularity led to a “Bowling Alone” book elaborating his ideas for building “social capital.” It also brought a windfall of more tangible capital: more than $1 million in foundation grants to pay for projects such as the survey. Putnam calls the study a “community physical” from which prescriptions can be drawn to cure the nation’s participatory palsy. He wants Americans to spend more time with one another, and less on things such as watching television or surfing the Internet. (Putnam’s assistant said he was too busy to talk to a reporter, and suggested the reporter send him an e-mail.)

Some criticism has followed Putnam’s success. He has been accused at times of blaming social malaise for problems with more than one cause.

Putnam’s catchy book title comes from his observation that while more Americans are bowling today than ever, fewer do so in organized leagues. That fact may well be a sign of declining trust and community.

But it could also be the result of technological leaps that have made league bowling a far costlier hobby than it was in the 1970s. For example, competitive bowlers today often keep an arsenal of several different bowling balls to match various lane surfaces, as well as other equipment that can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Authors of the civic engagement survey said they were troubled by the fact that ethnically diverse communities had the lowest level of involvement and were the most divided by wealth and education levels. They found, for example, that in diverse places such as Los Angeles, Houston or Yakima, Wash., college graduates were four or five times more likely to be involved in politics than those who did not complete high school. In more homogeneous Montana and New Hampshire, by contrast, the class gaps were half as large.

Two other variables could lower civic engagement--a higher number of noncitizens (who cannot vote), and the sheer size of a community. The study said it had adjusted its findings with both variables in mind, but did not explain its methodology.

The low civic engagement attributed to ethnically diverse places could in many cases may also be a consequence of their size: People in larger cities are often more isolated from government and each other.

With a few exceptions, the communities identified as ethnically diverse are also the largest. The exceptions were Baton Rouge, La., Birmingham, Ala., Greensboro, N.C., and Yakima. They are identified as ethnically diverse because their proportion of minority residents puts them in the top third of the 40 communities surveyed. But they contain nowhere near the variety of ethnic and religious groups present in a place like Los Angeles.

Large and diverse cities like New York, Miami and the Washington, D.C. area--places likely to provide some of the most meaningful comparisons to Los Angeles--were not included in the study. Such omissions were a consequence of the way the study was conducted.

Individual surveys were taken by philanthropic foundations in each community. Allan Parachini, a consultant who is promoting the survey, said the study was proposed by Putnam at a national gathering of community foundation representatives, and the first foundations to sign up took part in the study.

Eleanor Brown, a Pomona College economist who is an advisor to the study, acknowledges that the lack of data from New York and other big cities makes the data less complete. “There may be questions about the nature of big-city America we can’t answer with this survey,” she said.

In her analysis of the survey’s Los Angeles results, Brown found that Los Angeles residents become more trusting the longer they live in the area. Among those who have lived in Los Angeles five years or less, only 29% feel people can generally be trusted. That figure jumps to 46% for those who have lived here longer.

Thus, the high levels of mistrust in Los Angeles could be based at least partly on the area’s high proportion of newcomers. Forty percent of Angelenos surveyed had lived in their communities less than five years, compared to 29% of the national sample.


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