Tap Water & the Decline of Social Capital

Ten years ago, Robert Putnam wrote about the decline of social capital in America (i.e. why we don’t know our neighbors, belong to many clubs, or entertain our friends with dinner parties as often as we used to).

This decline is difficult to measure but it impacts many areas of society. For example when social capital erodes in neighborhoods, people install alarm systems in their homes; an area once entrusted to the local Neighborhood Watch. We’ve shifted trust in our neighbors to private security firms even though our towns aren’t any more dangerous than they used to be (property crimes are at early 1970’s levels). People do it because it makes them feel safer. If our neighbors have become strangers, and strangers can’t be trusted, it starts to make sense. Private security companies further exacerbate the problem with ridiculous commercials to increase people’s fear.

Another measure of the decline can be seen here in L.A. where the public school system is in shambles. Only 52% of LAUSD seniors graduated last year. The PTA used to be the social glue that held students, teachers, and parents accountable but membership rates have steadily declined in recent years. It seems even the most steadfast parents who hung around while LAUSD went downhill have since opted for private schools.
Those parents were crucial to keeping the system in check. Without them, there’s no teacher/student accountability and the negative feedback loop continues.

The national decline in social capital affects how tap water is perceived as well. "How can I trust the city to provide clean water if they can’t even fix the pot holes in the street?" people say. And that mistrust is reinforced when alarmist news stories report about water quality violations. But in the span of a 2 minute news piece it’s difficult to provide sufficient context about nature of the violation.

And when violations are reported by the media, they may not even affect residents who hear about it. For example a small county in southern Florida may have had a violation that wouldn’t affect residents up in Orlando. But residents in Orlando still see the story on the news, and it leaves a negative mark on their mind about tap water.

Who is there to speak up for tap water? There’s no official brand ambassador for tap like many other organizations have. Any time a reporter writes a piece to suggest that the Catholic Church may be infallible, Bill Donohue is right there to defend it. Who does tap have, the EPA?

Imagine if Coke had a health violation at one of their bottling plants but no spokesperson provided context or clarification about the incident. And when they rectified the problem a few days later, they didn’t send out a press release. It would never happen.

There’s no spokesperson to defend tap. The only thing that keeps people loyal to it is a vague sense of community loyalty that’s a remnant of bygone era, when a clean water source was crucial to the success of a town. Nowadays most people don’t know where their tap water comes from so they don’t feel obliged to keep tabs on it. For this reason they’re much more susceptible to accusatory advertising from private bottlers.

As we’ve seen with the Neighborhood Watch and PTA, it’s become easier for people to outsource their trust to a private entity (private bottlers) than it is to hold their local water utility accountable.

We want to restore than sense of community.

Musings about health and wellness, social entrepreneurship, and of course tap water!