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Employment solutions: Can a town’s good deeds lower unemployment?

The dollars and cents of good deeds: Communities with high social capital tend to have lower unemployment. Some seeking employment solutions see this altruistic glue as something to study.

By Leda HartmanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2012

A meeting of the Unofficial Beach Moms group in Pittsboro, N.C., where the community glue of good deeds and high social capital may be one reason the area has lower unemployment. This is the cover story in the June 4 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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Pittsboro, N.C.

Long before anyone uttered the R-word, people in Chatham County, N.C., saw the economy starting to sputter. They noticed prices going up and incomes going down. So they fought back by taking care of each other.

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Roxanne Hollander, a local chiropractor, has opened up a weekly sliding-scale clinic, offering massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care for between $15 and $30, about a quarter of the usual fee.

Lee Pollard, a benevolent mad scientist, has donated close to 500 computers to needy kids and seniors, refurbishing old machines that people give him in the cheerful chaos of his computer repair shop. Somewhere under the mess on his desk, there's a card from a 4-year-old, written in crayon: "You're a very nice man. I love my computer."

At the traffic circle in downtown Pittsboro, the Chatham County seat, Tony Sullivan sells and repairs musical instruments. These days, people come by to sell their own instruments, not to buy any. His teaching income is drying up, too, because laid-off parents can't afford lessons for their kids. But Mr. Sullivan has continued to teach some of those kids free of charge.

"I'm a lousy businessman," Sullivan observes wryly. But there's more to it than that. "Everybody that comes in that door is more or less a friend, you know. These are all people from this little town, this area. They're my neighbors, and they're hurting. You want to help people out as much as you can."

Sullivan's landlady, Elizabeth Anderson, agrees. A few months ago, she lowered his rent.

"I could use the $100, too, but not as much as this store could," Ms. Anderson explains. "It's worth it, in the long run, because of keeping people still trying to contribute to the economy and their own well-being, and the well-being of the town."

Recent studies suggest that community altruism doesn't just sweeten people's lives, it's also good dollars and cents. Though it's hard to prove with scientific certainty, there is plenty of evidence showing that places with active citizens have lost fewer jobs during the recession than places without them. Chatham County – part bedroom community, part green living mecca, part Mayberry, R.F.D. – may be a case in point. Its jobless rate is 7.3 percent, one of the lowest rates in the state.

Civic safety nets: God, friends, Facebook

The notion that it pays for people to look after each other isn't new. If you ask Herbert Gintis, a behavioral economist at the University of Massachusetts, it goes back 2 million years. It started when hunter-gatherers began living together in tribes, and people's chances of survival were better if they worked together and made decisions together than if they fended for themselves. Of course, human society has morphed tremendously over millenniums. But Professor Gintis sees remnants of those ancient dynamics all over the place.

"Communities operate mostly not through law, but through mutual give and take and co-operation," he says. "In a good community, people know what the kids are doing. They gossip and report on each other; they help each other. A community is a form of social organization in which control is informally exercised through participation. People just participate – they come to the town meeting, they talk to each other. Everybody keeps their own property in good shape because their neighbors will yell at them if they don't."

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