Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jan-Feb 2018 issue

The Vanishing of Social Capital

By Craig Waldron

The Vanishing of Social CapitalWhen our citizens are socially engaged, that creates benefits— something we call “social capital”—that flow to our cities. Social capital leads to trust, reciprocity, information sharing, and cooperating networks in our cities.

Unfortunately, social capital is vanishing in our society as a whole. It’s a problem that city leaders should understand and work to solve.

So, what is the problem? Dr. Robert Putnam has explained it well in his book Bowling Alone, in which he draws on research to show that Americans sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, get to know their neighbors less, and meet less often with friends and family.

People are even bowling alone. Americans are bowling more than ever, but they are not coming together in leagues as they once did. And when people don’t come together, they don’t create social capital.

Why are we losing social capital?
According to Putnam, we don’t yet know what the impact of social media is on social capital. But what we do know is that we are losing social capital because of an increase in people who:

  • Live alone.
  • Live in less dense areas, where it is harder to connect with neighbors.
  • Use online education.
  • Are focusing on just trying to survive in a difficult economy, leaving little time or energy for group activities.

Why is social capital so important? Research at Harvard University tells us that communities with high social capital experience:

  • Stronger bonds among residents, with more volunteering, more local organizations, and more voters.
  • Better child health and welfare, and an overall better environment for children to grow up in.
  • Improved educational success.
  • Lower crime rates.
  • Economic prosperity in terms of income, tax base, and jobs.
  • Enhanced public health and well-being for all citizens.

In Putnum’s new book, Our Kids, he discusses the huge social opportunity gap that exists in his hometown. As this problem grows, there is now less social capital to address it. We have gone to an “I” and “me” perspective rather than “us,” where we are all in this boat together.

Success story
The good news is that it is possible to create social capital in your city if you make it a priority. I have experienced this firsthand. While serving as the city administrator in Oakdale, I had the good fortune to work with the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce, a group that brought a tremendous amount of social capital to the city.

The chamber invited me to become a board member because it wanted to establish a hand-in-glove working relationship with the city. As part of this effort, the group included a city report at its full membership meetings.

The chamber also became a champion and supporter of a number of critical city projects, including:

  • Fundraising for a new bandshell.
  • Funding of a significant number of events in the city’s concert series.
  • Having members serve on numerous city commissions and ad hoc committees.
  • Coordinating a Christmas gifting program for the area’s needy children.
  • Participating in and sponsoring nearly all city events, such as Summerfest and Winter Wonderland.

The Chamber constantly worked to integrate City Hall with the business community for the benefit of the whole city.

Encouraging social capital
What can you do to encourage the development of social capital in your city? Here are some ideas:

  • Go out and recruit the best and brightest to serve on city commissions.
  • Develop citizen academies.
  • Offer activities that will inspire residents to turn off the TV and computer and get out of the house.
  • Take city activities out of city hall and into the neighborhoods, where the people are.
  • Encourage civility in all aspects of our communities.
  • Help others to think of society not as “I” and “me,” but as “we.”
  • Encourage residents to:
    • Get to know their neighbors.
    • Become involved in the local schools.
    • Join a service club.
    • Help coach a team.

    Let’s all hope we can put a dent in this problem. The health of our cities depends on it.

Craig Waldron is co-director of the Center for Public Administration and Leadership at the Hamline University School of Business (www.hamline.edu/business). The Hamline School of Business is a member of the LMC Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).

Read the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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