Tuesday night (May 12) saw an astounding lecture on social capital: Lewis Feldstein, president of the New Hampsire Charitable Foundation and co-author (with Robert Putnam) of Better Together: Restoring the American Community, spoke at Schaible Auditorium on the topic “Better Together: Community Leadership and Social Capital”.
The lecture, part of UAF’s Northern Leadership Center Lecture Series, presented little that was new to those who had read Better Together and Robert Putnam’s earlier, seminal work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (on my “Further reading” list) — but it was fun all the same to get a re-cap of some of the exciting points of social capital research.
For those not familiar with the term, social capital is, like physical capital and human capital, a source of wealth — that is, it’s not the wealth itself but a means by which wealth is created. It is measured by the density of social connections, whether of an individual or within a community — by the degree of organizational membership and social or civic participation. It has myriad benefits, both to the individual and the community, some of which I’ll touch on here.
On a national level, our social capital increased steadily from the time of the Great Depression — then peaked in the early nineteen-sixties. By almost all measures, it has been on the decline since then.
These are some of what I found Feldstein’s most interesting points:
There is an old saw about getting jobs: “It’s not what you can do, it’s who you know.” This is actually quite true. Feldstein referred to a national welfare-reform program of the 1990s. It worked, for some: those who were already well connected. If, in their generally low-paid work, they’d had the good fortune to rub elbows with a wide variety of those well off and in a position to offer work or make referrals, their luck was better in finding work later.
This is possible because of “bridging” social capital — the weak connections between prople from unlike groups. It contrasts with “bonding” social capital — the strong connections we have with people just like us. Both are important. Bonding social capital is like superglue; bridging social capital is like WD-40.
You have a roughly equal chance of early death from (a) being morbidly obese, (b) smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and (b) being absolutely alone (disconnected from others) in your life.
Norms of trust lead to cost savings and greater public safety. For example: if you are able to trust that your co-workers will not steal your lunch from the staff refrigerator, you are spared the cost of your own private refrigerator and the trouble of continually locking up your food. Another example: Because we generally trust our fellow citizens to pay their taxes, we ourselves don’t feel like suckers for doing the same; thus, more of us do it and the amount each of us has to pay is less.
Imagine a “bad” neighborhood in your community. Would you like to improve public safety there? A ten-percent increase in social capital — whereby the neighbors know each other better and know who is to be trusted — will actually do more for public safety than a ten-percent increase in expenditures for police officers, squad cars, street lighting, and other conventional “public safety” measures. Similarly with schools: you’ll get improved educational outcomes by a ten-percent spending increase on salaries, computers, supplies, or whatever. But you’ll get more-improved outcomes with a ten-percent increase in social capital, such as greater connections among teachers, administrators, parents, and students.
Some, hearing this, will say, “See? That just proves that government gets in the way. We don’t need any government spending on social programs at all!” Not true. For best outcomes, you need both government expenditure and social capital. [Maybe you could say that best outcomes require many kinds of capital: not only social, but human, physical, and economic — some of which are most efficiently provided by centralized agencies.]
Given two communities of equal income and education levels, the one with high social capital will enjoy greater happiness, greater health, increased safety, better schools, and a local government that is more efficient and less corrupt. [Feldstein also mentioned some benefit to business.]
Every ten-minute increase in the daily time spent in a car reduces by ten percent your likelihood of doing almost any social activity.
The decline in social capital has been ascribed to number of causes, including:
- Sprawl: as people spend more time in cars, their ability to participate decreases. [Also, while in your car, you have almost zero chance of making human connections, which require face-to-face contact and a non-hurried attitude.]
- Television viewership. This is the one factor that correlates almost perfectly with the decline in social capital.
- Workplace model: as two-worker families have become the norm, families have less free time for social engagement.
One of the case studies in Better Together is the culture of UPS, in which relatively little is communicated by memoranda and e-mail. UPS favors face-to-face communication and small-group meetings; in this way, they build trust. This is a big lesson of UPS: trust is built by face-to-face contact.
Trust is built by people having the opportunities to hear each other’s stories — not their “Once upon a time” stories, but their answers to questions like, “So, where are you from?” or “What led you take this job?”
- Usually, social capital is not an end in itself. It is a means to other ends, and it is built (and drawn upon) by people’s common endeavors: cleaning up a neighborhood, forming a labor union, making a road-crossing safer.
- Trust is built by starting small.
- Personal storytelling has an awesome power in generating social capital. Feldstein and Putnam hadn’t expected this and weren’t looking for it in their initial research.
When the floor was opened to questions, I asked Feldstein: What things can government — whether local, state, or federal — do to increase social capital, or at least create an environment in which it can thrive? His answer, which he had clearly thought about before, was:
- Have people drive less and get out of their cars more.
- Foster smaller institutions. He specifically mentioned the benefits of smaller schools.
- Encourage service learning. Years after their service learning experiences, young people vote more, volunteer more, and trust more than their peers without such experience.
- Feldstein also suggested (though I don’t know whether this was part of the answer to my question) that we need to figure out how to make the Internet better help people connect at a local level.
Fairbanks is an interesting contradiction: my experience (which may not be representative) is that there is tons of civic involvement here. The people I know all sit on boards, commissions, and committees — for government, non-profits, and churches. They’re involved in community theater, political campaigns, and neighborhood governance. They show up to testify at meetings of the City Council, the Borough Assembly, and the School Board. I always tell people with pleasure of my experience on a statewide issue campaign: in Anchorage, I hear, they had a paid staffer but very little volunteer help — while in Fairbanks we had a core of about a dozen volunteers, and we had several dozen more (my list included over a hundred) writing letters and making phone calls. That kind of thing makes me proud to live here.
At the same time, Fairbanks has a major “anti-social” element. I don’t mean antisocial in the sense of “performing actions that hostile or harmful to society” (at least intentionally); I mean only that there are many people who stand for things in direct opposition to social capital. They are individualistic and not “joiners”. They deny having any responsibility for the circumstances of others or any obligation to help them. They are mistrustful of their neighbors and their government. They believe that the solution to many institutional problems is not greater involvement in, but detachment from and even dissolution of, those institutions. For them, governments exist only to foster individualism, and there is no general welfare.
Of course, by saying, “They believe X“, I do a disservice to the limitless variety of human thought. There really is no “they” who all fit the above bill in one and the same way. But their voices form a harmony whose major notes are division, distrust, and a want of benevolence.
Where do these voices come from? Or, more importantly, how do we can we encourage the choir of our community to sing in a more sociable key? How can we increase citizen participation, cooperation, and trust?
Further information on social capital:
- The Saguaro Seminar, a source for much of the research on social capital.
- BetterTogether, an initiative of the Saguaro Seminar, focusing on tools and strategies for social capital-creation.