What is Social Capital?

What is Social Capital?
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The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to:

The collective value of all 'social networks' [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [norms of reciprocity]. (www.bowlingalone.com)
Many factors indicate the amount social capital in a community, including voting rates, group membership, philanthropic commitments, and informal social contact with friends and neighbors.

The Power of Social Capital

Social capital is one of the most powerful predictors of outcomes for individuals and communities. Strong networks of trusting relationships and an inclination of citizens to participate provide a context in which other community priorities can be addressed effectively. The amount of social capital in a community is directly linked to educational outcomes, crime rates, and economic prosperity. For instance, Professor Robert Putnam shows through rigorous statistical analysis that, “The correlation between high social capital and positive child development is as close to perfect as social scientists ever find…Across the various Kids Count indicators, social capital is second only to poverty in the breadth and depth of its effects on children’s lives.” (Bowling Alone p.296-297).

The Decline of Social Capital

Virtually all forms of social capital have been on the decline over the past thirty years in American communities. For instance:

* Just over ½ of eligible voters (51.3%) turned out for the 2000 presidential election (www.fec.gov), with the figures being much lower for most local elections.
* The frequency of having friends over for dinners has declined by 45% of the past 25 years. (Bowling Alone).
* Between 1973 and 1994, here has been a 40% drop in the number of people who attended meetings on town/social affairs. (Bowling Alone p. 42).
* There has been a 25% drop in the number of people who participated in at least one community or political activity. (Bowling Alone p. 45)
* Membership rates in 32 national organizations dropped nearly in ½ between 1960 and 1994. (Bowling Alone p. 54)
* Roughly ½ of associational memberships, philanthropy and volunteerism is connected to religious affiliation. Thus the 1/3 decline in church attendance impacts social capital significantly. (Bowling Alone p. 66)

The Need for Action The decline of social capital represents a national crisis; we can’t make progress on other issues we care about without tackling the decline of social capital. There are a number of signs that suggest that the time is right for new efforts to build social capital and increase civic engagement, including the following research:

* A League of Women Voters study indicated that Americans involved in numerous activities and issues, and many would like to be even more involved. http://www.lwv.org/elibrary/pub/cp_survey/cp_3.html

* An article by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol argues that the "structure of existing civic organizations" is a factor that limits civic engagement in the post-9/11 world--a factor that SCI is trying to address! http://www.apsanet.org/PS/sept02/skocpol.cfm

* A recent study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts examines generational differences in levels of civic engagement. In particular, it explores both the barriers and opportunities to promote civic participation among the young "DotNet" generation. http://www.pewtrusts.com/pdf/public_policy_youth_civic_political_health.pdf

* According to a February 11, 2002 American Prospect article by Robert Putnam, polling data suggests that while values changed post-9/11, there has been limited behavioral change. http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=bowling_together

* A study conducted by Lake Snell Perry & Associates suggests that young adults are now more trusting in government and more interested in getting involved after 9/11, but have not changed their behaviors significantly. http://www.pewtrusts.com/pdf/pp_circle_0302.pdf

While there are many exciting efforts to address various social problems that at least implicitly seek to build social capital, Social Capital Inc. has been created to address for the need for an organization to focus explicitly on building social capital as its primary purpose. For links and resources on social capital, click here.