The Collapse of America’s Social Infrastructure

Our roads, bridges, and airports are crumbling, but so is our “social infrastructure”–libraries, schools, playgrounds, athletic fields, gardens, bookstores, diners, and barbershops.  Over at The Atlantic, New York University sociologist Eric Klineberg discusses the collapse of the places that build flourishing communities and a healthy democracy.

Here is a taste of his piece “Worry Less About Crumbling Roads, More About Crumbling Libraries“:

Every four years, the American Society for Civil Engineers issues grades for the nation’s infrastructure. In the most recent evaluation, released in 2017, America’s overall infrastructure score was a D+, the same as in 2013. Although seven systems, including hazardous waste and levees, received modestly better grades than in the previous assessment, transit and solid waste, among others, did worse. Aviation (D), roads (D), drinking water (D), and energy (D+), retained their miserably low scores.

The ASCE does not grade our “social infrastructure.” If it did, the scores would be equally shameful. For decades, we’ve neglected the shared spaces that shape our interactions. The consequences of that neglect may be less visible than crumbling bridges and ports, but they’re no less dire.

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Social infrastructure is not “social capital”— the concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and networks—but the physical places that allow bonds to develop. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. People forge ties in places that have healthy social infrastructures—not necessarily because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships—even across ethnic or political lines—inevitably grow.

Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, and athletic fields, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are community gardens and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Nonprofit organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructure when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, clothing, and other consumer goods.

Read the rest here.

2 thoughts on “The Collapse of America’s Social Infrastructure

  1. This is an excellent observation and analysis.
    Reminiscent of Heinlein’s amendation to the old saw, “Never assume malice in what could be simple incompetence… But don’t rule out malice, either.”
    It is also important to recall that Ayn Rand was an infamous “hard atheist,” who reportedly once said to William F Buckley, “You are too intelligent to believe in God!”. More important, she also referred to religion in general (though usually with the term “mysticism”), and Christianity in particular, as a “great evil.”
    Given this, it is passing curious that so many self-styled “Christian conservatives” would hold her, and her theories (of which the atheism is a central tenet), in such high esteem, essentially making of her a secular saint.

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  2. For a libertarian, letting publicly-funded institutions lapse into decay would be seen as a good thing, correct? Whenever I see articles about the sorry state of libraries and parks, I don’t view it as some kind of temporary lapse (“we forgot to invest in parks!”), but instead I see the result of a deliberate campaign to discredit, undermine and underfund anything that could be construed as a public good. The fact that Ayn Randian concepts have taken hold so readily in Christendom is an absolute tragedy. We’ve reached the point that we can’t even be sure that basic elements of civilization (functioning public schools, or a post office that serves everyone in the nation) will be around in future years. I would hope Christians would begin confronting libertarianism head-on, and by name.

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