The Connecticut General Assembly
OFFICE OF LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH
February 13, 1996 96-R-0109
FROM: John Rappa, Principal Analyst
RE: Social Capital
You wanted to know how a community can improve its “social capital.”
Social capital exists where the members of a community routinely work together on solving common problems. They do so on their own accord, without being required to by law or regulation. Social capital evolves over time, as the members develop certain expectations that shape and maintain the way they act toward each other. But public policies and demographic and technological changes can undermine those expectations and the behaviors they produced. Some social scientists believe that this has happened in many American communities.
Public policies and programs designed to revitalize socially and economically distressed communities inadvertently ignore social capital or destroy it, some critics contend. Many urban renewal programs demolished and cleared old dilapidated buildings, but in the process destroyed viable communities. Subsequent programs have tried to correct these mistakes, but they concentrate on rehabilitating houses, increasing police patrols, or assisting individuals, without engaging local residents and organizations in the process.
Some policy analysts believe that community development happens when the members of a community collectively identify and mobilize their human and institutional assets. Government programs complement and support these efforts, but do not drive them. These analysts cite many examples of how large and small organizations, such as hospitals and church groups, have effectively dealt with common problems, and in the process established long-term relationships. Despite these examples, public policies will not succeed until government recognizes the role social capital plays in developing a community.
Social capital is the web or relationships that enable and encourage people within a community to work together on solving a common problem. It can be seen in apartment buildings where the tenants know each other well enough to identify and challenge strangers wandering through the halls. It can also be seen among a group of merchants who sponsor festivals and other events to revitalize shopping districts.
The social capital formation process begins when people come together to work on a problem. The capital accumulates as the members begin to expect certain things from each other. These expectations shape and maintain their behavior. The time members spend working together sets the stage for future collaboration, which is the return that can be expected by investing in social capital.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam coined the term “social capital” while studying Italy's regional governments, which correspond to American state governments. He found that certain regional governments were more effective than others, even though they all had the same structures and powers. Longstanding traditions of civic engagement seemed to make the difference. Regions such as Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna had many active civic organizations, some with roots going back to the Middle Ages. People in these regions trusted one another to act fairly and obey the law, Putnam claimed. Their leaders were relatively honest and committed to equality. And the social and political networks through which the citizens engaged each other were organized horizontally, not hierarchically.
The opposite was true in other regions, such as Sicily and Calabria. There citizens were not involved in civic affairs and few belonged to social and cultural organizations. For most of them, “public affairs is somebody's else's business I notabili, 'the bosses,' the politicians, but not theirs. Laws, almost everyone agrees, are made to be broken, but fearing other's lawlessness, everyone demands sterner discipline. Trapped in these interlocking vicious circles, nearly everyone feels powerless, exploited, and unhappy” (“The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life,” The American Prospect, Spring 1993).
Putnam believes that America's supply of social capital is eroding, and, in the process, intensifying social problems, such as unemployment and welfare dependency. He sees the erosion in the fact that fewer people are joining or participating in various organizations, such as churches, labor unions, and bowling leagues. While Putnam acknowledges that more people are joining organizations like the Sierra Club and the American Association of Retired Persons, he contends that the only act of membership for most these groups' members is paying dues or reading newsletters. Most members do not know each other and are bound only by common symbols, leaders, and ideals.
Putnam sees four factors as contributing to the erosion of the nation's social capital. First, the traditional labor pool for voluntary organizations is drying up. In the past, the PTA, Red Cross, and similar organizations could depend on women volunteers, most of whom were homemakers. Today those women are in the workforce, trying to hold down full-time jobs while tending to their families. And both men and women are working longer hours, with little or no time for civic activities.
The American tendency to pick and move frequently undermines the formation of social capital. Putnam cited studies showing that homeownership and the length of time people stay in an area increases the chances that they will become involved in civic activities. “Mobility, like frequent re-potting of plants, tends to disrupt root systems, and it takes time for an uprooted individual to put down new roots.”
Fewer marriages, more divorces, and declining birth rates and other demographic trends are eroding the social capital supply. “Each of these changes might account for some of the slackening of civic engagement, since married, middle class parents are generally more socially involved than other people.”
The transformation of the retail sector is reducing opportunities for building social capital. Before World War Two, most Americans bought their goods from family-owned corner grocery stores; today, they shop at supermarkets that are open 24-hours a day, seven days a week. In other retail areas, the marriage of personal computers and fiber optic cables allows consumers to shop electronically without dealing with salespeople.
Putnam also attributes the erosion of social capital to the “technological transformation of leisure.” Television, VCRs, video games, and virtual reality computers are “radically 'privatizing' or 'individualizing' our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social-capital formation.”
Public policy has also contributed to the erosion. “American slum-clearance policy of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, renovated physical capital but at a very high cost to existing social capital. The consolidation of country post offices and small school districts has promised administrative and financial efficiencies, but full-cost accounting for the effects of these policies on social capital might produce a more negative verdict.” But what the government destroys, it can create: “past initiatives as the county agricultural-agent system, community colleges, and tax deductions for charitable contributions illustrate that government can encourage social capital formation” (Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy, January 1995).
REBUILDING SOCIAL CAPITAL
Individualism-Based Public Policy
Many government programs undermine social capital by focusing exclusively on meeting the needs of individuals. “ Classic liberal social policy is designed to enhance the opportunities of individuals, but if social capital is important, this emphasis is partially misplaced.” Instead social policy should develop communities, “allowing space for religious organizations and choral societies and Little Leagues that may seem to have little to do with politics and economics.” Putnam believes that certain efforts, such as homeownership programs and agricultural extension services, can build social capital, but provides no blue print for doing so.
Developing a Community's Assets
Theory. Kertzmann and Mcknight offer such a strategy, one that identifies and mobilizes a community's human assets to solve problems. Their asset-based strategy “starts with what is present in the community, the capacities of its residents and workers, the associational and institutional base of the area—not with what is absent, or with what is problematic, or with what the community needs.” It also concentrates on helping local residents and associations acquire knowledge and skills needed to solve problems. In doing so, the strategy requires the residents and associations to “constantly build and rebuild the relationships between and among local residents, local associations, and local institutions.” In other words, it builds social capital (Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets, 1993).
Kertzmann and Mcknight's strategy differs from conventional ones, which focus on a community's needs, deficiencies, and problems. These strategies lead to programs that address needs without giving people the means to do this themselves. As a result, they foster a “maintenance and survival strategy targeted at isolated individual clients, not a development plan that can involve the energies of an entire community. “
Application. Asset-based community development is a two-step process. The first step involves identifying the skills and capacities of a community's residents, associations, and institutions. Associations and institutions include many that are overlooked or ignored by traditional community development policies. These include churches, schools, libraries, hospitals, and cultural organizations. They also include informal groups, such as a neighborhood block watches and tenants' associations.
The second step involves bringing these groups together to solve a common problem. Kertzmann and Mcknight use case studies showing how this can be done. Attachment 1 discusses how hospitals have collaborated with many different community groups on specific problems and in the process helped these groups develop skills and expertise. It explains, for example, how one hospital adopted a local school and conducted medical exams for students in athletic programs.
The second step also requires identifying the community's physical assets, which include abandoned buildings and vacant lots and wastes that can be used or recycled. Traditional community development looks at abandoned buildings mainly as liabilities threatening public safety and draining a community's tax base. Kertzmann and Mcknight agree with this, but also see abandoned buildings as potential assets:
What would happen if communities began to perceive those same properties as potential assets? A vacant lot filled with junk does have the potential of becoming a community garden. A vacant school becomes a combined-use living and learning center. An abandoned industrial site becomes a small business incubator. And an abandoned warehouse becomes a theater, complete with retail, rehearsal and workshop space.
Communities can find business opportunities in the waste they generate. For example, they can collect cans, bottles, paper, and scrap metals and sell them to industries that manufacture recycled goods. Communities can use tree trimmings and other landscape waste for projects that beautify neighborhoods and create jobs.
Government's Role. Kertzmann and Mcknight believe that government can help rebuild social capital only if it changes the way it looks at communities and tries to assist them. In trying to help, government usually dominates, stifles, and misdirects local efforts to rebuild social capital. For this reason, government must change its role from “defining problems and creating solutions to following community definitions and investing in community solutions.” They offer specific suggestions on how municipal, state, and federal governments can do this. Most concern municipal governments, since they deal directly with communities.
Municipalities can build social capital by encouraging or supporting grass root efforts to solve problems. Instead of just asking the local residents about their problems, municipal officials should identify and support local groups already at work addressing them. Savannah, Georgia, for example, offered $500 to any block organization with a community building idea. The grants “stimulated many local groups to consider what more they could do with their members to develop their area. The city had high leverage with limited dollars and a map of local assets and problem-solving leaders emerged from the applications.”
State and federal governments influence or control the way municipal governments relate to communities. State governments give municipalities the power to perform certain tasks, such as enforcing housing codes or regulating land uses, and specify the procedures they must follow when performing these tasks. These procedures often preclude other, more creative ways to address problems. The Connecticut General Assembly tacitly acknowledged this when it established the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone program, which allows local groups in distressed neighborhoods to seek code and regulatory waivers (PA 95-340). This program attempts to build social capital by creating a process through which groups can prepare and implement a strategic development plan for their neighborhoods. (Attachment 2 describes the program.)
State and federal agencies fund many housing and community development programs administered by municipal agencies and other local organizations. The regulations governing these programs influence or control the way municipal administrators deal with local groups. The federal Community Development Block Grant program, for example, requires municipalities to consult with citizen advisory bodies, but does not require their participation in implementing community development strategies.
State governments often fund community development projects through different agencies, programs, and funding mechanisms, each with its own priorities, criteria, and procedures. This frustrates comprehensive, locally developed solutions. State governments can correct this by consolidating some of these programs, emphasizing outcomes over procedural requirements, and giving preference to collaborative projects involving multiple municipal agencies and local groups. Attachment 3 gives more details on how governments at all levels can promote social capital.