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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.

(Page 5 of 6)

A business lends a hand to competitors

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Throughout the country, there are many stories like Chatham County's, about people having each other's back during these hard times.

In 2009, every member of the firefighters union in Yonkers, N.Y., agreed to work one day free of charge, saving the city $1 million and staving off layoffs. Last Christmas, anonymous "layaway angels" spontaneously donated more than $1 million to pay off the layaway accounts of Kmart shoppers in stores around the nation. In January, loyal customers "cash mobbed" a family-run hardware store in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, inundating it with sales.

But the most powerful story of all may belong to a little oil company in Dixfield, Maine. In February, The New York Times ran an article about Hometown Energy giving a break to an impoverished older couple who offered to trade the title to their car in exchange for an oil delivery. Overnight, donations from across the country flooded in, overwhelming co-owner Ike Libby and his staff.

"We had no idea that we would get any donations at all," Mr. Libby told the Monitor. "We were hit upside the head, so to speak. Over a week – we have two phone lines – both phone lines were ringing. It was just simply amazing. I haven't cried so much since when I was a little kid."

Even the local television reporter who came to see him was touched. "I was dead tired and really emotional," Libby recalls, "and I looked at the guy doing the interview, and he had a stream of tears running down his face."

Hometown Energy has set up a website to manage the donations, which have totaled about $250,000. But instead of keeping all the money for his own customers, Libby is sharing it with several other oil companies in his area – his competitors – because many of their customers need help, too. He says as generous as the donations have been, they're just a drop in the bucket in terms of the local need, because of federal cuts to heating assistance for low-income people.

"The other oil companies were, I think, taken aback just because we did offer it to them," Libby says. "But I didn't think we should be taking advantage of someone else's heart. It's not my money, you know. It's America's money."

Rugged individualism or rowing together?

The Hometown Energy story brings up an interesting question: How should people in need get help? Should Libby's customers, for instance, rely on the government to help them pay for heat or on the generosity of donors, or should they manage alone the best they can? It's a perennial debate: the tension between rugged individualism versus rowing together is practically written into the nation's genes.

At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Amitai Etzioni espouses an idea he calls "communitarianism" – that society is really like an extended family and we are each other's keeper. He says the quintessential American image of pioneers riding off into a self-reliant future isn't exactly what it seems.

"There's a lot of talk about men going west," Professor Etzioni says. "But men did not go west; caravans went west. When we had a barn-raising, what did it mean? It meant all the community came together to help whoever's turn it was today to raise the barn. And you talk about the wonders of the one-room schoolhouse." It was the community, he says, that created public education.


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