The Remedy for America’s Loneliness Problem? Restoring Our Civic Health

Article In The Thread
Lonely woman sitting on the bed beside the windows with sunlight peaking through.
Ken Stocker/Shutterstock
July 24, 2023

Put simply, social isolation is killing us.

In April, America’s top physician Dr. Vivek Murthy warned of an epidemic of loneliness. Lonely people experience higher rates of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans report feelings of non-belonging. One study finds that social isolation is associated with a 29 percent increased risk for premature mortality, and another that social isolation increases the chances of premature death equivalent to that of someone who smokes up to 15 cigarettes per day.

The evidence is indisputable: Our physical health is inextricably intertwined with our civic health. Good civic health translates to building meaningful connections with neighbors, local leaders, and institutions — and working together to identify and solve public problems. And how we engage with our neighbors and networks directly impacts our own well-being. People who feel socially connected have stronger immune systems, live longer, and experience 70 percent less cognitive decline and dementia.

From our workplaces to our neighborhoods, however, Americans are more disconnected than ever. A large share of us (64 percent) report a feeling of non-belonging in the workplace, while 68 percent don’t feel they belong in the nation, and 74 percent report a feeling of non-belonging in their community. Feelings of belonging and connection to a larger community impact our sense of identity and individual happiness.

How do we solve this isolation problem? How do we foster social support for ourselves and our neighbors? Civic infrastructure — the people, places, and programs in communities that make up the connective fabric necessary for a vibrant, multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy — is a large part of the solution.

Robust civic infrastructure promotes community engagement and staves off the detrimental societal and health effects of loneliness and isolation. Civic infrastructure can be everything from public parks and libraries to rotary clubs and places of worship, or other places where people gather. And it is the key to solving our loneliness epidemic.

First, civic infrastructure can connect people to their local leaders. Generally, people hold greater trust in state and local governments than the federal government. Studies find that the more local the government, the more trusted it is by its constituents. In 2021, Gallup found that 66 percent of Americans trusted their local governments, as opposed to 57 percent and 39 percent for state governments and the federal government, respectively.

“Robust civic infrastructure promotes community engagement and staves off the detrimental societal and health effects of loneliness and isolation.”

CivicLex, in Lexington, Kentucky, for example, builds civic health through education, civic transformation, and relationship building. The organization involves community members directly in redistricting processes through a paint-and-sip workshop where members draw their own redistricting maps. CivicLex builds relationships with community members to engage in budgetary and legislative processes.

Richard Young, Executive Director of CivicLex, said, “Even something as simple as introducing a resident and a city staffer at a picnic in a public park can help them understand the humanity on the other side of the bureaucracy. We think human connection and community are the foundation for building a resilient faith in civic life.”

Second, organizations can make a stronger policy connection between civic, physical, mental, and social health. How people come together to plan and design their communities can have direct impacts on health equity. Vitalyst Health Foundation, a nonprofit working across Arizona, understands this — and is on a mission to catalyze strong, healthy, and engaged communities.

“Every day, Vitalyst connects with partners throughout Arizona to discover the various ways they are working to improve the health of their neighbors and communities,” said David Martinez III, Director of Community Engagement with Vitalyst. “Whether it is through voting, speaking at a town meeting, volunteering, or donating to a favorite local nonprofit, these activities promote civic health and become contributors to both our individual health and the health of our democracy.”

Finally, we can support existing leaders and dedicate resources to expanding civic infrastructure to build more resilient communities for the future. This includes investing in what works. Reimagining the Civic Commons, for example, is promoting “civic assets” in a dozen cities across the nation, all with the mission of fostering engagement, equity, and well-being in communities. The program began in 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with a pilot investment in five key civic assets: a riverfront trail, a renovated public library, an elevated park, an outdoor education and nature center, and a new vision for West Fairmount Park. To this day, Philadelphia Civic Commons supports growth and connection between Strawberry Mansion, East Parkside, and Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods.

The federal government can also bolster investment in civic infrastructure at the hyper-local level. The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, a part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, offers one example. The Commission explores challenges facing American democracy and proposes solutions to strengthen it in the twenty-first century. Their Our Common Purpose report recommends establishing a national Trust for Civic Infrastructure to invest in the “places, spaces, leaders, organizations, and networks” that facilitate a culture of connection and commitment to one another.

Just this month, the Biden-Harris Administration announced a streamlined process for funding applications to reconnect communities through infrastructure projects. The administration unlocked $198 million for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program and over $3 billion for the Neighborhood Access and Equity Program. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act created these programs, thus empowering communities to address past harms and reimagine infrastructure that will enable them to thrive.

With the federal government making a once-in-a-generation commitment to communities, federal dollars can support civic infrastructure in places that will help usher in green transitions, support critical equity work, and build the democracy we need for the twenty-first century. Only then can we build bonds between our socially disparate circles and lead more connected, more civically empowered, and healthier lives.

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