My mom was known in the family as "POC"--short for "Pillar of Community." Her estimable talents were in constant demand for every community effort, from leading the townwide campaign to register every eligible voter to serving on the school board. Like Mom, I do my share; but unlike Mom, I do only my share, and then always as a soldier, never as a general.
What explains the difference--that she is a member of Robert Putnam's "long civic generation" and I am a boomer? Or that Mom's MBA was last used in the service of paid work before my older brother came along more than half a century ago, and I have a full-time job?
Putnam's excellent book Bowling Alone has been criticized for failing to confront what is alleged to be the real source of the decline in civic engagement: the march of women into the work force. According to this critique, Putnam was too afraid of the wrath of feminists to admit the politically incorrect truth, that the fatal blow to civic life occurred when women left home for work. In fact, although he devotes relatively few pages to this intuitively compelling thesis, he gets the story right.
Social capital is multifaceted. All things being equal, those who trust others are more likely to go on picnics, to join the softball league, to volunteer in a soup kitchen, to give to the United Way, to attend religious services, to go to the polls faithfully, or to get involved in a political campaign. However, the relationships among the many components of social capital are anything but simple. And, as Putnam makes clear, among women the impact of full-time work affects the private aspects of social engagement more strongly than the public ones.
Indeed, while being in the work force full time diminishes the number of dinner parties women give and the number of club meetings they attend, it actually enhances their political participation. My colleagues, Nancy Burns of the University of Michigan and Sidney Verba of Harvard, and I are just completing a large-scale study that seeks to unravel the puzzle of why women are still somewhat less politically active than men. The culprit is not women's entry into the work force.
We find that although women are more likely than men to vote, they are somewhat less likely to take part in a variety of other forms of political activity--for example, working in campaigns, making campaign contributions (especially big ones), getting in touch with public officials, working informally with others to solve community problems, sitting on local governing boards, or belonging to organizations that take stands in politics. It turns out that one of the several factors contributing to the gender gap in participation is the fact that men are more likely than women to be in the work force and, among those employed full time, more likely to have jobs that pay well and demand high levels of education and training. So working actually increases political participation by women.
Our data--drawn from the 1990 American Citizen Participation Study, the most complete study of various forms of voluntary activity ever conducted--show unambiguously that working women are more politically active than are women who are home full time. Part of the reason that employed women are more active than are homemakers is the factors that determine which women--out of choice or necessity--end up entering the work force and which ones end up staying home. Women in the work force have certain characteristics--especially higher levels of educational attainment--that are associated with political activity. Thus, the participatory edge of employed women derives in part from the fact that they are different from full-time homemakers in many ways, some of which are germane to political activity.
The next question is obvious: In light of the ways that employed women differ from women who are at home full time, wouldn't these working dynamos be even more politically active if they quit their jobs and had the time to devote their energy and brains to voluntary pursuits? Putnam makes clear that employment for women has the effect of diminishing social visits with friends and club memberships. When it comes to voluntary activity that is explicitly political, however, our analysis not only demonstrates that paid work actually increases participation but also shows why.
Several things happen on the job that enhance political participation for both men and women. First, paid work is, obviously, paid; and income has long been shown to predict political participation of various kinds--especially making political contributions. In addition, workers, particularly those whose jobs demand education and training, develop organizational and communications skills that are transportable to political activity. That is, those whose jobs require them to make presentations, to organize meetings, to write letters and reports, and the like find it easier to participate in politics--even if there is absolutely nothing political about the workplace-based activities that developed these civic skills. Finally, employed women and men are more likely than those outside the work force to be asked to take part politically. Like those who are involved in voluntary organizations or religious institutions, those who go to work are embedded in social networks through which requests for political participation are mediated.
Of course, work has one important characteristic that would seem inconsistent with its positive effects on participation: It is very time-consuming. Hence, we have probed whether women with full-time jobs, especially those who also have children at home, simply do not have the time to take part in politics. Try as we might, however, we have found absolutely no evidence to suggest that the amount of leisure time individuals enjoy has any impact on their political activity. In short, apart from other characteristics that make women in the work force more likely to be politically active, work itself operates in several ways to foster political participation.
Our findings, thus, lend further support to Putnam's conclusion that the march of women into the work force--one of the most significant social changes of the second half of the twentieth century--has had a relatively limited impact on the overall erosion of civic engagement. For one thing, despite the magnitude of the increase in women's labor force participation, not all women have gone to work. In addition, as Putnam makes clear, not all working women have displayed an equal propensity to disengage from civic life: Part-time workers and those who take jobs out of choice are less likely to withdraw from community and social life than those who take full-time jobs out of necessity. Finally, our study shows that not all aspects of civic engagement are equally affected. On the contrary, paid work enhances voluntary political participation broadly construed.
Even if the movement of women into the work force were the primary impetus behind the decline in civic involvement, we might wish to question the fairness of the expectation that women have a special responsibility to be keepers of the civic flame. Compared to other developed democracies, the United States is not especially generous to those--overwhelmingly women, of course--who choose to stay at home full time. Public assistance has always been stingy, and it got more so with welfare reform. Social Security for the aged is tied strongly to employment, with the result that the elderly poor are very disproportionately female.
In light of these circumstances, why should one group be expected to eschew the benefits of income, status, and security that accompany paid work in order to assume the full burden of caring for the social fabric? Shouldn't responsibility for the creation of social capital fall to all members of society--male and female alike? ¤
Kay Lehman Schlozman is chair of the Department of Political Science at Boston College and co-author of, most recently, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics and The Private Roots of Public Life: Gender and the Paradox of Unequal Participation.
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