Archive for the ‘Social capital’ Category

Lewis Feldstein

Lewis Feldstein

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.

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At a very happy dinner party on “Thanksgiving Eve”, each of us was invited in turn to name something he or she was grateful for.  It would have been rude of me to hog the floor for the sake of being thorough, so I kept mine fairly brief.  I’m going to expand on it here.

I think it’s common in Fairbanks — probably in the entire country; I’m unsure about other nationalities — to believe in the ideal of the self-made man.  In comments on the News-Miner website, people often deny the need for social programs (or even much sympathy) for the unfortunate, since the most difficult of circumstances can be gotten through by those of good character: certainly they pulled through tough times by their own grit, without help from anybody.


Did you hitchhike?  You can be glad for the kindness of those who picked you up.  You can be glad that the car’s construction was built to some government standard of safety.  You can be glad for the civil engineers who designed the streets and roads.  You can be glad for traffic laws, as well as for both those who create them and those who enforce them.

Did you scrounge food from the refuse of a restaurant?  You can be glad that there are regulations about how the food-service industry must operate to provide safe food.  You can be glad for the agencies that exist to enforce those standards.  You can be glad for the medical and other scientific professionals from the present to back ages past for the research underlying the standards.

Did you sleep in an abandoned building?  You can be glad that the building was built to code — if not up to current code, at least it was probably built to some code — elsewise you might imperil yourself each night, if you even found the building standing.  You can be glad for building inspectors.  You can be glad for the work of the architects and engineers who have hammered out these codes over decades, if not centuries.  (Though I recognize that the study of architecture itself has been around since time immemorial.)

No, no, you don’t get away with saying you’ve done it all yourself and live in no man’s debt unless you’ve lived off the grid since your youth: fashioning your own tools, building your own dwelling, and hunting and harvesting your own food, all without any of the goods and services civilization brings.  (Even then, you might be glad for smokejumpers.)  But, more likely, you are in everyone’s debt, as we all are, omnes omnibus.

I’ve certainly never had to live such a spartan life: I’m lucky to come from a family well enough off (as most are), and to eke out enough of a living (as most can), to embrace the city’s material goods, like plumbing and electricity, and its cultural goods, like schools and libraries.

One of the civic goods I’m grateful for is the bus system — part material good and part cultural, I suppose.  Fairbanks is widely spread out: not only do many people choose to live far out of town where a car is every day required, but even in town I doubt there is any one neighborhood where all life necessities and civic needs can be met on foot.  (As I’ve said before, car ownership is our own unofficial citizenship tax.)  Without the bus system, many would be cut off from job prospects, church attendance, access to government, and even grocery shopping.

My own circumstances are not so dire.  Through a series of gratitude-worthy causes that I won’t recount here, my wife and I are lucky enough to own one car and to have use of another through the cold half of the year.  We can pay the citizenship tax, though we’d have less of the “scraping by” feeling if we didn’t have to.  So when I’m grateful for public buses, I’m grateful for a luxury (though it’s perverse that we should have to consider buses, not cars, the luxury).


  • Though my wife and I continue to pay monthly insurance on both cars, we are spared nearly all the cost of gasoline for one car.  Plus, there’s less risk of getting in an accident and needing car repair.
  • I get twenty to twenty-five minutes of down time each way.  Most of the time I read, but I’ve been known simply to think, and sometimes (especially on the way home) to snooze.
  • Watching the variety of company is fascinating.  Like most people, I see a fairly homogeneous group of people at work, at church, and among my friends.  But bus ridership cuts across professions, religions, and subcultures.  I enjoy the window into how other people live and think.

So I’m glad for the drivers — both for the training and skill they bring to the job, and for their having a temperament that allows them to do that work.  The vigilance they exercise every day, in driving safely and in making their scheduled stops as promptly as possible, would exhaust me.

I’m glad for the work of the Borough Transportation Department.  Their staff has to train drivers, designate the routes, budget for all the services, maintain and repair the buses (and other vehicles in the department), and keep a comfortable, dignified transit center.

I’m glad for the City of Fairbanks Public Works Department, for street-sweeping, snowplowing, and all manner of street maintenance and repair.

I’m glad for the Borough Assembly, which approves budgets for the Fairbanks North Star Borough and allocates money to fund transit operations.  For FY 2009, the Assembly allocated over 5.7 million dollars to the Transportation Department, under the critical eye of the often tax-averse Fairbanks-area public.

I’m glad for the property-tax-paying public, who for FY 2009 are shouldering nearly seventy percent of the Borough’s budgetary burden.  Of course, this includes most people, since even renters indirectly pay some portion of their landlord’s annual assessment.

It is true that many people would like to have their property tax lowered or eliminated, or would like to have their civic contribution steered toward something other than public transit.  Therefore, I’m glad I live in a culture where — more or less — cooperation is valued, public goods are embraced though they may not benefit each individual, and caring and kindness are considered not only personal virtues, but public virtues too, and are part of our civic mandate.

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Many members of my religious body love to talk about the spiritual uplift they get from nature. (In this context, nature means something like “the outdoors”, places where they do not see the touch of humanity.) Among people for whom care of the earth is a religious calling, such a sentiment is common. But folks of my religious persuasion are also traditionally called to nurture community — and it’s that calling that speaks to me more; it is from community that I get my uplift. And it was community that saved my Saturday.

Saturday was my older daughter’s day for Taekwon-Do. She absolutely loves Taekwon-Do, and she began talking about going almost from the moment she awoke. So I panicked when, forty-five minutes before her lesson was to start, I discovered that my wife had gone to work in the car with both of our children’s car seats: the infant seat for the younger, and the booster for the older. I had another car handy, and might have taken our older daughter for the short ride to the dojang (studio) without a booster — but not our toddler. We were stuck.

When I told my daughter that there was a chance we might not be able to go, she tried to take it bravely, but truly she was devastated, in tears. So I got on the horn to see if any friends could help out.

My first call was to our friends and neighbors Mike and Theresa, who live just over a block away and have a son about the age of our older girl. Did they have a spare infant car seat? Mike checked, and the answer was no.

My next call was to our friends and slightly more distant neighbors Mike and Jill, who were out of our neighborhood but still within walking distance. No answer, just an answering machine. Damn.

I racked my brain for anybody I knew with smallish children who might live close enough to get to our house in time for us to take the car seat and get to Taekwon-Do on time. So I took a long shot and called my friend Rich, who lives on Auburn, just off Farmers Loop Road, figuring he might just be able to make it, if he ditched his wife and baby at home. Well, his wife said he was at work, and I don’t know her well enough to ask her to bail me out.

But she said the most useful thing: “Do you know anybody who could take your daughter to Taekown-Do?” It hadn’t occurred to me at all to send her with some other adult.

So, back to Mike and Theresa. Could one of them take her? Well, Theresa was at work, and Mike had the oven taken apart and all over the kitchen floor — so it wasn’t a good time. Rats.

I should mention here that, with every call, my daughter was growing more distraught. She was trying to be stoic, but her body quivered as she breathed, her eyes red and puffy.

Last shot — I had no more ideas: I called our across-the-street neighbor, Tracie, whose family we don’t have a really social relationship with. Was there any chance she could take our daughter to Taekwon-Do?

Yes! Hallelujah! My daughter was instantly uplifted. She told me she felt very grown-up, going to Taekwon-Do without her parents.

I also was uplifted, but for another reason: it meant that my family had established ties of trust and mutual good will with another family, one that we might not have come to know but for the fact that we were neighbors. We both confirmed and strengthened our supply of social capital — the density of interpersonal connections, within either a community or an individual’s life, that lead to better health, higher education, and greater economic prosperity. I guess “community” might well be defined as a group of people who develop social capital among one another. If so, then we had really made a community tie.

It’s important to notice a couple of preconditions to this neighborly connection, though.

First, Tracie is our neighbor — not just in the sense that she’s the closest person available, but in the sense that she lives in our neighborhood. In fact, as my wife pointed out today, it would take us longer to walk to the car in our driveway than to walk to Tracie’s front door. Social capital increases with proximity. That is, the denser the population you live in, the greater social capital you will enjoy. (I suspect that there is a rough upper limit to this, that above some population density, people will retreat more to their homes and make connections with fewer of their neighbors. But I haven’t read anything to back that up.) It is generally harder to create and maintain relationships with people far away than with those nearby.

Second, until she took a position in the Cosmetology program at TVC, Tracie used to be our family barber. It’s not just that she lived near us: we probably have a few hundred neighbors within five minutes’ walk. But we actually had some practical reason to visit her in the shop she ran in her home. I saw her every month, and my wife and Taekwon-Do-loving daughter saw her every two or three months. Also, since she worked in her home, she was often outside the house, meeting customers or tidying the driveway. So we saw her a lot: sometimes we just exchanged quick pleasantries, sometimes we made a little small talk, and sometimes we talked more deeply about our families or our neighborhood. It was through that regular contact that we developed a friendly, “neighborly” relationship.

Social life and social capital are diminished when people have no practical concerns that bring them into contact. And they are increased when people who might not have chosen to meet have common places and common business that forces them to rub elbows. There is no place like a traditional neighborhood for building community.

My wife and daughter baked Tracie some brownies Sunday afternoon and took them over. It can’t be considered “repayment”, since it’s of an entirely different order. But it was a way of keeping open the flow of good will between our households, and letting Tracie know we’re happy to be her good neighbors any time she needs us.

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Today, I’ll tackle the dark side of one of our most cherished, wholesome institutions: youth soccer. (Is nothing sacred?)

Last night (Monday), I attended a panel discussion on “Building Social Capital”, facilitated by Dr. Susan Herman of the Northern Leadership Center. Briefly, social capital is the density of human social connections either within an individual’s life or within a community. It is increased by such things as knowing your neighbors, working on a political campaign, joining a baseball league, participating in a reading group, attending church, serving on a board or commission, and volunteering your time just about anywhere. Higher social capital — at both the collective and individual levels — is linked to better health, higher education, and economic prosperity. An excellent popular introduction to social capital is Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which you’ll find on my “Further reading” page.

As an example of social capital-building, somebody pointed to the Fairbanks Youth Soccer Association fields at Wilbur and Davis. In one sense, I have to agree. It brings together, for acquaintance and team involvement, young people who otherwise might not meet. This is a good.

But how do those young people get to the soccer field complex? Since it is not served by public transportation and is within walking distance of only a handful of houses, almost all children must be driven by their parents. I want to look at two consequences of this: (1) these youth may not play soccer with any autonomy, since they require their parents to drive them; thus, (2) the social class of youth who may play is determined by the location, since only children whose parents can afford to own cars (and don’t have to work evenings) can attend.

(Having been there a couple of times, I recall — tell me if I’m off base, here — that the families were almost entirely Caucasian. Maybe this comes from soccer’s being perceived as a “white” sport, but I suspect that increased accessibility for lower-income children would bring increased ethnic and cultural diversity.)

Thus, youth soccer in Fairbanks offers what Putnam calls “bonding social capital” — the strengthening of ties within and between fairly homogeneous groups. Bonding social capital is necessary, but it can lead to a group’s alienation (of itself or of others) if it is not balanced by its complement, “bridging social capital” — the ties between unlike groups.

Not only are children ferried to their games by their parents, but they do this to play a game with fixed rules, refereed by adults, at regular, specified times, with children of the same age. What this takes away from children are many chances to negotiate rules (possibly flexible) of games with children of varying ages and backgrounds. It takes away chances to start spontaneous “pick-up” games of soccer with neighboring children. It takes them away from chances to know their neighbors and their neighborhood better. In the adult world, we are thrust together with all different ages, classes, and cultures of people — and we must negotiate rules and interactions on our own. When we put our kids in too many structured, supervised activities, with people too much like them, we deprive them of chances to develop these adult skills. We deny them chances to practice building bridging social capital.

Of course, parents may say: But people live so far and wide here! How else do you expect our children to play soccer?

I would answer: Why have we caused our children to live so far away from others that their only chance to play with their peers is at a scheduled, structured, segregated event for which they are wholly dependent on adults? Many people say that Fairbanks is a great place to raise kids — and indeed I believe it is. But a suburban lifestyle stunts children in their autonomy, spontaneity, and ability to develop socially.

Perhaps this is extreme. I don’t mean to condemn youth soccer as a social retardant. The fact is, I plan to take my daughters there when they’re old enough to play: all that running around with other kids is so good for them. And meeting new friends — even if of the same race, class, and age — will stretch them socially.

I just hope we can live in a way where their autonomy, spontaneity, and free play with neighbors become the norm.

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