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Why the Loneliness Epidemic Is a Challenge Local Governments Must Embrace

By Mark Funkhouser

When our kids were young, the neighborhood park was the center of me and my wife Gloria’s social life. A large group of us met there so regularly we even named ourselves “the Park Club.” We’d bring dinner and drinks, and we’d talk about the kinds of things that parents regularly juggle — kids’ needs, work, social obligations — while our children happily ran around for hours.

It was much-needed social time during a period in our lives when everything seemed to revolve around the kids. And importantly, it reminded us that we were not alone in our experiences as parents. Without that feeling of community, parenthood would have felt much more isolating.

At the most fundamental level, we were doing what humans have done for millennia. People are social animals who have lived together and shared space for thousands of years. Whether it was the town green, the farmstead housing three generations, the city boarding house for singles or the trolley ride across town, being with other people and interacting with them was a regular part of daily life.

But over the last century, we’ve been steadily walling ourselves off from each other. First it was the automobile, then the rise of the single-family home. More recently, technology — from television to the internet — has allowed us to retreat further behind closed doors. Today, 28% of all American homes are one-person households, compared with just 13% in 1960. The pandemic increased loneliness worldwide, while in the U.S. the disturbing frequency of mass shootings has added to people’s reluctance to congregate in public spaces. Finding that human interaction and sense of belonging that Gloria and I enjoyed all those years ago at the park has become a lot harder.

Loneliness is often referred to as the “hidden” epidemic. But it is becoming ubiquitous. There’s a good chance that some of you reading this are feeling lonely right now — and a very good chance that many of you have felt that way at some point over the past year.

It may seem like a personal situation beyond the purview of government, but its growing prevalence is an important challenge to society in the same way that issues such as homelessness, diabetes, obesity, smoking and unemployment are recognized as problems that require a communal response. And government can act as a catalyst.

Government has a role because loneliness impacts outcomes for our communities in three ways. First, it’s a risk factor for illness and early death. Second, the social expectations and judgments people make are generally more pessimistic when they are lonely, which has negative impacts on social wellbeing and economic prosperity. And finally, social isolation hinders governments from successfully engaging their citizens. Democracy needs community.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy recognized the role of institutions when he put out a call to action for governments, schools and community organizations, among others, to recognize and start addressing our crisis of loneliness.

“When we are less invested in one another, we are more susceptible to polarization and less able to pull together to face the challenges that we cannot solve alone — from climate change and gun violence to economic inequality and future pandemics,” Murthy wrote. “As it has built for decades, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our country apart.”

In a comprehensive advisory Murthy posted on his department’s website, he lays out a six-point framework for “a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.” Three of those recommendations are ones that require a local-government-engagement response:

  • Strengthen the social infrastructure in local communities.
  • Enact pro-connection public policies.
  • Cultivate a culture of connection.

To those of you familiar with Funkhouser & Associates’ work, this rubric may sound familiar. After all, our whole mission is about building connections and cultivating relationships. In South Bend, Indiana, for example, we saw how getting people with diverse viewpoints in one room to workshop topics that are meaningful to them yields more effective ideas and a better understanding of one another. We also saw the pride and appreciation residents have for the city’s public spaces as gathering grounds — and how rising violent crime can undermine those positive feelings. It’s why we made connections the central theme of our comprehensive plan framework, with the city playing the role as a convener and catalyst for community cooperation. It’s also why we launched a new joint initiative with the National Academy of Public Administration to help local governments incorporate meaningful community engagement into their strategic planning efforts.

This type of engagement and community-building is labor-intensive on the parts of both the convener and the community. Our engagement methods didn’t just rely on remote surveys that can be filled out with little deep thought; we were asking people to donate their time and honest opinions — to take down the protective layer we use to shield ourselves from opposing viewpoints. To us, these types of convenings are the best way to start building the foundation for trusted relationships between the community and the city and within the community itself.

If our epidemic of loneliness is in part caused by weakened social ties and mistrust of one another, cities are in a unique position to reinvigorate the space for civic engagement and rebuild trust. Through our work, we hope we can help move the needle by demonstrating how to think differently about community engagement and move from the old “transactional” model to one of ongoing dialogue, relationship-building and consensus.

We look forward to working with (and featuring in our newsletters) cities that are spearheading policies or initiatives to cultivate social infrastructure and create opportunities for residents to connect. Drop us a line if you’re working on addressing loneliness in your community.

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