We have been living in our current house for about seven years now. In the last six months we have lost three of our four neighbours (we are wondering whether we are the common factor in those three decisions…) which has meant that the little community within 30 metres of our front door has dissolved. We are still quite close to one set of neighbours and swap babysitting nights every month with them: this still works because they haven’t moved far away. The other two neighbours we weren’t overly close to, but we were close enough that we could call on them for help if there was an emergency and would talk to whenever we were both in the backyard or putting out the rubbish at the same time.
Since coming back from a couple of months in Australia we have really noticed the loss of that mini-community, and we need to try and recreate it with our new neighbours (it doesn’t help that one of them has not moved in yet, we wonder if some land banking is going on…)
Our experience with neighbours seemed to be largely reflected in this report from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee about community interactions through neighbourhoods, churches, schools and voluntary associations in the US. The report offers a riposte to claims that traditional marriage “offers a false promise of belonging and security that is better found elsewhere in non-traditional arrangements”. (Speaking from experience, I would be surprised if I could find more security and rootedness than I find in my marriage and family…) As this report argues, there is not only inherent value in marriage, but “measurable social value too” for spouses, children, and wider communities.
In the context of neighbourhood interaction, those who have never married and have no kids are the most likely (at 40 percent) to “spend a social evening with a neighbour at least several times a month”. In contrast, only 25 percent of married adults with children say they do the same. But it seems as if married adults interact more frequently with their neighbours in general. Married adults are more likely to talk with their neighbours at least a few times a month compared to their divorced, separated and never married counterparts. The same is true for those who do favours for their neighbours a few times a month or more: married adults are more likely to report doing so than their non-married peers. Interestingly, married couples are much more likely to agree that “most people can be trusted” (at 38 percent) than divorced/separated adults (27 percent) and those that are never married (22 percent).
Frequent religious attendance among US adults has slowly declined in the last 50 years (by about a fifth) and those that never attend religious services are now more numerous than those that only attend infrequently. Again there is a marked divergence between married and non-married adults in religious attendance and this divergence grows significantly when one looks at those who have children. While 52 percent of married adults with children attend religious services at least once a month, only 37 percent of those adults with children who have never married do so.
But it seems that being a parent is associated with being more religious: irrespective of marriage status, all adults with children are much more likely to attend a religious service monthly than those without. Finally, it seems that married adults are more likely to involve themselves in voluntary associations and activities. Nearly half of married couples volunteer or serve on a school committee (compared to less than a third of non-married parents). While 53 percent of never married adults were members of at least one voluntary association in 2004 (the last year of available data) just under 70 percent of married couples claimed the same. The trend for voluntary association membership is downwards for all American adults, but the decline is slower among married adults.
While mediating communities, the “little platoons” of neighbourhood, church and voluntary associations are in decline in the US (and throughout the West), it seems as if the decline is in less decline among married adults. The most basic community institution, the family, seems to support the others. I really should get rebuilding our community of neighbours.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.