Can Civic Groups Like Moose, Elks Survive?

But now, according to Skocpol, people are more likely to participate in professional societies related to their occupations, where they meet people with similar backgrounds, education and income.

"A lot of these fellowship organizations have been replaced by professional organizations that cater to the educated middle class," she said. "This is contributing to greater inequality in America, dividing the highly educated and professional managerial class from everyone else."

Members Enjoyed Medical and Insurance Benefits

The loss to some communities includes more than intangibles like social networking.

Members of civic groups, many of whom were uninsured working fathers, were eligible for important financial benefits, according to David T. Beito, associate professor of history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Most clubs offered medical care and health benefits to members and their families, in addition to building hospitals and orphanages.

Among poor families, the loss of these membership benefits is felt most sharply. "In poor neighborhoods, lodges used to be very important," Beito said. "That's a great loss and it's been suffered already."

Beito also noted that civic groups were often a primary means of entertainment in smaller towns. And in some communities with strict liquor laws, he said, "they were the only place you could get a drink."

What's Causing the Decline?

Various factors like commute times and households with two working parents have been blamed for shrinking the membership rolls of civic clubs. The powerful impact of telelvision, however, is near the top of everyone's list.

"Technological developments such as television have privatized our leisure time," said Williamson. "Americans are filling their hours with solitary time in front of the television, rather than time with friends and neighbors."

Williamson also blames the typical commute for a decline in civic participation. A recent census report states the average American commuter now spends over 100 hours a year getting to and from work -- longer than the typical two-week yearly vacation.

"Suburban sprawl means that Americans spend more time in their cars and less in their communities," she said. "Every additional 10 minutes behind the wheel result in a 10 percent reduction of individual civic participation in all its forms."

Women and Minorities Need Not Apply

Other experts note the changing roles of men and women in families and workplaces since the 1970s forced Americans to rethink their participation in traditional organizations like all-male fraternal groups.

Television parodies, like those seen on "The Honeymooners" and the absurd rituals of "The Flintstones'" Royal Order of Water Buffaloes, did little to enhance the reputation of fraternal groups.

"It became less fashionable among educated people," said Harvard's Skocpol. She also believes gender-based discrimination caused these groups to fall into disfavor.

The Optimists, for example, did not offer membership to women until 1987. Most groups relegated women to provisional or auxiliary participation in a handful of select activities.

And by excluding Jews, blacks, Asians and other minorities, these once-powerful fraternal organizations may have paved the way to their own demise.

"If you look at the 19th century, just about every organization that existed was exclusionary," said Beito.

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