Can Civic Groups Like Moose, Elks Survive?

The International Order of Loyal Raccoons was once an important part of everyday life for TV characters Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton of "The Honeymooners."

But like those characters from the 1950s television classic, fraternal organizations are in danger of becoming a grainy memory from years past.

As older members die off and younger generations find civic groups irrelevant, membership in centuries-old civic clubs like the Moose, the Elks, the Optimists and others is dwindling.

Organizations like the Odd Fellows, for instance, boasted about 1 million members in their 1940s heyday -- today, the Odd Fellows' ranks have thinned to half that number, according to a club spokesperson.

Is there a future for civic groups in America?

Cow Chips and Memberships

Sauk City is a small town nestled in the rolling hills of south-central Wisconsin. As befits the Cow Chip Capital of the state, the Sauk Prairie area is home to an annual cow chip throwing contest, as well as regular Chamber of Commerce golf outings and an autumn grape stomping festival.

But even in this stronghold of bedrock Midwestern values, fraternal organizations are struggling.

"One of the problems that all groups are having is membership," said Ed Jacobsen, president of the Sauk City Optimist Club. "A lot of clubs are down considerably."

The Sauk City Optimists host spaghetti dinners, support a scholarship fund and have a Meals on Wheels program. Despite these efforts at reaching out to the community, the group fails to get many members to show up at their mandatory meetings.

"People are so darn busy. They don't have time for it," said Jacobsen. "I'm not sure people care anymore."

Making Safer and Healthier Communities

It's not just members of small-town civic organizations who lament the disappearance of their traditions.

Many sociology and civic history experts believe these groups added a critical dimension to everyday life in American communities -- one for which there is no easy substitute.

"Repeated social interaction, such as the kind found at Elks, Moose and other clubs, greases the wheels of society by enabling social trust to develop," said Abby Williamson, associate director of Harvard University's Saguaro Seminar, which focuses on civic engagement in America.

"The social networks that form have value for individuals -- more resources in a time of crisis -- but also for society as a whole," she said. "Communities that are more connected are safer, healthier and demonstrate better outcomes for children."

Williamson also believes the decline in civic organizations may have a negative effect on democracy in the United States.

"For a country that relies on participation for democratic legitimacy, participation in clubs can serve as an entree to political participation, such as voting, advocating for local change or even running for office," she said.

Is Social Mixing a Thing of the Past?

Civic and fraternal organizations were one of the few places where men of varying educations and social backgrounds would socialize and network. President Calvin Coolidge, according to legend, was inducted into the Elks by his chauffeur.

"For so much of American history, they were a way for men of different occupational backgrounds to come together," said Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard.

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