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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.

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Etzioni respects volunteers. Many of them, he says, do work that's essential in order to keep society functioning, like fighting fires or responding to emergency medical calls. And he's not surprised that places with high levels of volunteerism are showing more economic resilience. But he doesn't think volunteers can meet the nation's needs on their own.

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The problem today, he argues, is that society is out of balance. "The thing about society is that it's a stool which has three legs: the government, the market, and the community. And two of them are too long and one is too short. There's too much government, too much market, and not enough community."

Etzioni says the answer is to rebuild community – but not to expect it to replace either the government or the market. "So you want the kind of balance you get when everybody is pulling in their own direction, like a good sailboat, and the mast stays erect because there are strings pulling in both directions."

At the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., Ryan Messmore agrees there's a lack of balance. His point of view is that just throwing money at society's problems won't fix them, because people need spiritual and emotional sustenance as well as financial support. He says faith-based and community groups can and should provide a lot of the help that people now expect from the government.

Mr. Messmore says historically in the United States, faith-based groups would form to help people in need – but do so in a way that demanded accountability and encouraged people to develop the habits and skills that would allow them to flourish in the long run.

"So this family would show up at the front steps of a faith-based association," he says, "and they would say, 'Come in, sit down, tell us your story. How did you get into this situation? What are your skills? What are your needs?' And then they would ask that person if they were willing to split wood – or, for pregnant women, can you knit. Were they willing to be involved in more than just a handout relationship?"

Messmore maintains that when the government spends more money addressing the needs that civil society used to address, people's expectations and sense of responsibility begin to change. "So that's just something healthy communities need to be aware of – that when they invite government involvement, they risk crowding out some of those approaches that can do better at addressing the real problem."

Polarized politically but together financially

Outside the Beltway, other communities are having similar discussions, including Chatham County.

If the county had a color, it would be purple. There are old-line, red-state conservatives here and progressive, blue-state transplants. There are fundamentalist Christians and nature-loving pagans. There are immigrant rights activists and people who fly Confederate flags. At times, seemingly small issues spur controversy, and the discussion on the county chat list turns toxic.

This may be a local reflection of deep national divisions. It may be a sign that at least people care enough about where they live to argue with each other. It may also highlight the need, and the opportunity, to move beyond partisanship to another way of relating.

That's the hope of NCoC's Smith.

He says people may be polarized when it comes to political labels, but that can change when they look at how much they have in common with their next-door neighbors.

"The more we realize that we'll solve local community problems together, and sacrifice together and struggle together, and move to a more prosperous community together," he says, "that's going to mean more than if we have an 'R' or a 'D' next to our name." At a time when the public's trust in government and corporate institutions is at an all-time low, Smith says, grass-roots cooperation could be the movement that pulls the economy out of recession, and pulls society together anew.

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