Is Policy Writing a Newscast or an Advertisement?
In Seth Kaplan’s new book, Fragile Neighborhoods, the ads are the best part
By Salim Furth
On Jan.11, 2019, I locked my office, bundled into layers of cycling gear, and plunged into the early darkness. Instead of heading to my family’s Capitol Hill apartment, I rode north. My purpose was to road test the commute to Takoma Park, Maryland, where my wife Katrina and I were looking at houses. When I reached the for-sale house that was my destination, I caught my breath and took in the surroundings.
Strikingly, the street was ablaze with holiday lights—both white and multicolored, tasteful and playful—on almost every house. People who will go to the trouble of putting up this many lights, I thought, and keeping them up well after New Year’s Day must like each other.
Five years later, my family is an integral part of that same block. My sons wear hand-me-downs from two older boys up the street. My 9-year-old earns pocket money once a week helping a neighboring family with slightly younger kids.
Our street has its own listserv, which is distinct and much more active than the multi-block neighborhood listserv, which is mostly limited to public events and lost pets. It’s easy to ask a small group of acquaintances to borrow a ladder, but a little awkward to ask a few hundred people, most of whom you have never met, for the same thing. Looking through emails, recent borrowings have included a stud finder, an air mattress, an MP3 player, a highchair and two beer steins.
Trust and familiarity built over stud finders and lost dogs comes in handy. Needing someone to watch a sleeping baby for a few minutes, Katrina put out a quick call for backup—and ended up with three neighbors chatting in our kitchen by the time she came back from her errand. The block has mourned deaths and dealt with nuisances. And its listserv was a forum for venting and cooling tempers when someone nearby put up an offensive sign in their yard.
All of these things were going through my mind when I met author Seth Kaplan recently for coffee at the neighborhood bakery where my kids went on their Japanese-style “first errands.” He and I swapped anecdotes of the socially enriching places where we live. His new book, Fragile Neighborhoods, proposes to extend the joys of living in a great, close-knit neighborhood more broadly, especially to places where material poverty is exacerbated by social isolation and distrust.
From News to Advertising
Is a book on public policy like Fragile Neighborhoods more similar to a news show or a TV commercial? Both forms have been honed to perfection in our consumer world, yet it’s striking how different they are. With news, the worse the better. (“If it bleeds, it leads.”) But when television news goes to a commercial break, the tone flips. Sellers don’t dwell on problems. Car ads don’t warn that without a second vehicle you could be late for work and lose your job—they show you the sleek new ride. Ads for cleaning products get to the shiny floors or neatly folded shirt as quickly as possible. Pharmaceutical ads don’t show the grim consequences of untreated illness. Instead, we get soft-focus shots of already-healthy patients and their grandchildren running through fields of dandelions.
Why the difference? Perhaps it stems from different goals: The news seeks to hold our attention; the commercial wants to galvanize us into action.
I opened this essay like an ad, with soft-focus holiday lights and happy children. In his book, Kaplan eventually provides an uplifting portrait of his own neighborhood, but like most policy writers, he first follows the newscast formula by building up a grim problem statement. It’s worth considering the alternate approach: casting a positive vision so compelling that we want to participate in it for its own sake. Can I take the pill that gives me happy, soft-focus grandchildren even if it doesn’t necessarily cure arthritis?
The first part of Kaplan’s book is a forced march through every serious problem in American life—opioid deaths, racial inequality, school shootings and so on. Each of them is—at least in part—a possible consequence of the decline of neighborhood social capital, and each is supported by a battery of studies. But none of this bad news is news anymore.
So skip the problem statement. Eat dessert first. The best way to read Fragile Neighborhoods is to start with optimistic Chapter 10. Then go back to Chapter 4 and the beginning of Kaplan’s case studies, and finish the book from there.
Kaplan’s central hypothesis is that social repair is best achieved by scaling sideways, rather than through top-down or bottom-up approaches. Kaplan does not give a simple definition of what scaling sideways entails, but I took it to mean working through existing institutions and leveraging and expanding their areas of strength. Each of the five real-world stories that form the core of Fragile Neighborhoods expounds by example this sideways, institutional orientation. But each also raises hard analytical questions.
The best example of what Kaplan means by sideways scaling comes in his chapter about Partners for Education (PFE), a nonprofit offering college readiness counseling and tutoring, among other services, in Eastern Kentucky. The program works through schools, “the strongest local institution” in a region with little social cartilage. Each school principal can select the programming that best fits his or her needs and philosophy. And the headline result—a big increase in college attendance—is impressive.
But, like all place-based programs, PFE cannot prevent its investments from leaking away from the place intended to benefit. Its sideways scaling is clearly effective at helping individuals. But is PFE’s focus on college readiness really a winning strategy for a region with few colleges? If more hard-working, creative Appalachian kids attend college, the end result might well be a faster brain drain, not stronger Appalachian neighborhoods.
Another chapter on Communio, a Christian nonprofit dedicated to strengthening marriages, gives a helpful contrast between top-down, sideways and bottom-up approaches. No institution is as personal as marriage, but grassroots approaches undertaken by families and their churches have clearly failed to prevent widespread divorce. A top-down approach would probably be even worse. Communio works sideways through churches, offering programs that are mostly fun and subtly guide couples toward healthier relationship practices. But unlike grassroots church attempts, Communio brings a polished program and sustainable budget. This combination of professionalism and local trust are a plausible approach to the broken marriages that are a clear contributing factor to a huge range of social problems, from teen pregnancy to job instability.
The chapter on Communio is unique in that it’s the only one focused on middle- and working-class people rather than the poor. The other case studies cover work in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, Detroit and Atlanta. Earlier in the book, Kaplan argues that the decline of neighborhood sociability is endemic. If so, shouldn’t sideways approaches build outward from remaining bastions of neighborhood strength as Communio does, restoring neighborliness in otherwise functional places before tackling the hardest ones? There’s an unresolved tension between Kaplan’s geographically sweeping diagnosis and his poverty-focused treatments.
Still, I took two lessons away from Fragile Neighborhoods. First, Kaplan offered a new framework for social action (“scaling sideways”) that is a useful analytical tool in many domains. Second, he inspired me with his descriptions of the meaningful, loving work of five great organizations.
But as the conversation about repairing America’s social fabric advances, aspirational visions deserve greater weight. A strong neighborhood cannot be built and sustained only as a crisis response; it needs holiday lights and borrowed beer steins as well.