Letter: Why, with shrinking populations, should town governments be expanding?

To the Editor:

A recent article in the CT Examiner, “Small Town Connecticut Faces the Limits of Volunteerism,” highlights two unfortunate societal trends and raises one obvious question. 

The two trends are aging populations and a decline in civic participation and volunteerism. The question: Why, with shrinking populations, should town governments be expanding?

To take the trends first. Over the six years, from 2013 to 2019, Connecticut lost just over 27,000 in population, or approximately 0.75 percent. That trend is expected to continue. The State has a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 1.6 versus 1.8 for the nation. Both numbers are below replacement rate, which, unaddressed, will cause higher costs down the road in terms of pension and health benefits. We have an aging population, with the median age having risen by just under a year over the past eight years, an age that is three years older than the median for the Country – not a healthy prognostication. 

As well, participation in civic organizations has been in decline. This is a trend that was captured in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam was concerned with the decline in civic organizations, but also with decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance and serving on committees. Part of the decline was due to more women in the workforce, but he laid more blame on technology, with the proliferation of the internet.

Ironically, his study showed that volunteerism, in the last couple of decades of the 20th Century, had bucked that decline. However, a 2018 study done by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute now shows that the national volunteer rate declined from 28.8% in 2005 to 24.9% in 2015 – the lowest point in two decades — it should be noted that total volunteer hours worked and charitable dollars given rose over those ten years, suggesting fewer people are contributing more of their time and money. But the decline, especially in the number of volunteers, is troubling. Communities rich in social capital tend to produce greater pro-civic attitudes, including trust and reciprocity in others.

Why Connecticut town governments, with shrinking populations, should continue to expand – placing a higher tax burden on fewer citizens – seems a sensible question. Perhaps a lack of volunteerism is partially responsible. But the bigger reason, or so it seems to me, is a growing isolation from, or disinterest in, government and the community. It is troubling when we allow government to become a growth engine to an economy. History shows that cannot last.

A growing separation between the people and civic organizations, including government, is not healthy for the long-term viability of community life. Over the years, our political leaders at the federal and state level have become segregated from the people they govern. We cannot afford that to happen at the local level. Democracy, we should never forget, is difficult to achieve but easy to lose. We need to return to the usage of the first-person plural when we consider our communities, towns, cities, states and country. We may, and we should, have political disagreements, but we are one people.

Sidney Williams
Essex, CT

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