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Central planners can’t fix Iraq—or Detroit

Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time, by Seth D. Kaplan, Little Brown Spark, 272 pages, $30

As America has grown wealthier, it has paradoxically suffered from higher levels of social decay: broken homes, loneliness, drug overdoses, decreased life expectancy. Many writers have offered solutions to such problems, but most of their proposals view the hollowed-out neighborhoods of Detroit or Appalachia either as empty vessels to be filled or as backward vestiges that need to be reorganized and rescued.

Seth Kaplan sees those communities differently. In each place, he argues in Fragile Neighborhoods, leaders and activists are working to make things better. Rather than replace these leaders with fancy new policy interventions, public policy should help communities build on what’s working.

Kaplan, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, brings a unique perspective to these issues: He has spent his career working on issues of state fragility outside the United States. His first book, Fixing Fragile States (2008), is unique in the long litany of texts about post-conflict reconstruction that were written during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It argued presciently that top-down approaches to such problems don’t work. Kaplan warned against big blueprints and Marshall Plans, making a strong case that lasting solutions lie not in more aid but in giving societies the space to restructure political arrangements that suit their purposes. Washington was never able to do this: It could only offer more cash and tired models of development assistance.

In Fixing Fragile States, as in Fragile Neighborhoods, Kaplan showed that custom and tradition in even the most underdeveloped communities should generally be preserved. But most state-building efforts sought instead to wipe them out and replace them with uniform, and ostensibly more equitable, social institutions. The new structures may have made sense to the average United Nations employee, but they never had legitimacy in the eyes of the people they were to serve. Rather than dictate what good institutions should look like, Kaplan argued, outsiders needed to let these societies build institutions from the ground up on their own terms. Communities and social norms are not obstacles to development; they are precious assets that must be strengthened and built upon.

What precious assets does Kaplan find in America today? Fragile Neighborhoods introduces us to community leaders working to fix social ills, from crime to lack of housing to poor high school graduation rates. The approaches he highlights do not come from Washington, D.C., or state capitals but from communities themselves. These groups don’t just tackle social problems—they try to strengthen social ties along the way.

For example: Thread, based in Baltimore, helps vulnerable and underperforming students by building a “web of trusting and caring relationships”; its volunteers seek not just to improve education but to develop supportive networks. Partners for Rural Impact does similar work in Appalachia, partnering with families and community leaders to support students not just in their schoolwork but in their lives. Life Remodeled rebuilds dilapidated infrastructure in Detroit and strengthens community cohesion along the way.

There’s also Communio, a nationwide nonprofit—Kaplan doesn’t stick to purely local groups—that tries to repair the social fabric by improving marriages. Broken marriages, Kaplan argues, are a major reason for feelings of loneliness; the unattached, he writes, “are more likely to act irresponsibly, and they are at greater risk of loneliness and poor physical and mental health.” The group engages with churches to help communities foster healthier relationships.

Some of the people who established these social enterprises came from the outside and set up camp in the communities they helped, but most of them did not. Enduring efforts for change usually come from within.

The pathway to revitalization, Kaplan concludes, is to “work horizontally across the landscape to strengthen the interconnected web of institutions and relations locale by locale while finding ways for each locale to work with the others. Resources can help, but without social cohesion, they are insufficient. Strong societies can always find resources, but divided societies with weak institutions will struggle, no matter how many resources they have.”

Relationships are everything for Kaplan. What is missing from communities is not wealth, but bonds. Community bonds help people lead more productive, meaningful, happy, and healthy lives.

But officials often prefer to focus on wealth: Every time society faces a crisis, be it domestic or global, they declare a need for a new Marshall Plan. I live in the Rust Belt, where a group of academics and officials recently dreamed up a “Marshall Plan for Middle America,” which aims to use federal funds to spur a “transformation of local communities” from despair to resilience. The hope is that investment from the top down will generate the economic growth needed to sustain a recovery, which will in turn generate prosperity and resilience. Big investments and big plans are always the panacea.


The strength of Fragile Neighborhoods lies in its diagnosis of the problem and its chronicle of local groups’ efforts. Few books have done a more comprehensive job of this. Kaplan has a harder time offering guidance to readers hoping to emulate the successes he chronicles. Indeed, his basic theme—that enduring solutions are best found from within—limits the level of policy guidance that he can provide in the first place. It might simply not be possible for the government or even for national nonprofits to do much to solve these problems.

But Kaplan does provide some general frameworks for action, such as encouraging a decentralization of authority that allows communities space to find their own solutions. And he deduces a set of design principles that are common throughout each case: Officials, he suggests, should think about how to build a shared vision with community leaders, develop coalitions for action, and make sure “change agents” have the data they need at their disposal.

Unlike many writers who tackle these tragedies, Kaplan sees beauty in the American landscape. Communities are not vacuums, he says; they still have the tools to tackle these problems. But well-intentioned efforts to help them have crippled the foundations of social cohesion that make communities strong. Top-down solutions to issues like poverty and education unintentionally suck the life out of local efforts. Even when local efforts are second-best, they can provide the foundation for community cooperation.


March 2024