This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
As America turns the page on a grim year of pandemic and polarization, our nation’s challenges demand a renewed focus on what it is that holds our cities, towns, and neighborhoods together. That means helping to create places with a high degree of connectedness among citizens, where people are more likely to join associations, engage in civic life, and trust their neighbors.
Being part of a strong community is of course an important element in leading a good life. Less often discussed is that places with high “social capital” also tend to promote economic opportunity and mobility. Unfortunately, social capital has been declining in U.S. communities since the 1960s, as social scientist Robert Putnam famously documented in his book “Bowling Alone.” This has worrisome economic implications, especially for those regions of the country with low levels of social capital.
New research by the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative shows that local social capital influences opportunity in multiple ways, including living standards, education, health care, and housing affordability. In fact, local social capital is one of the best predictors of how well cities and neighborhoods perform as engines of upward mobility for people who grow up there, according to research by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty and colleagues.
Researchers at the Social Capital Project, an initiative of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, have developed a way of measuring social capital across the country. Using this metric, it is evident that cities with relatively strong social capital tend to have higher-than-average education and income levels, including among their Black and Hispanic communities. They also have stronger universities and health-care institutions, according to the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative’s index of knowledge-generating activities in cities. Moreover, these cities have outperformed other cities on average when it comes to building new housing and containing affordability pressures over the last decade.
Why do some cities and neighborhoods do so much better than others when it comes to social capital? It helps to be a high-income place: America’s poorest places universally score low on the JEC index. But our research suggests that many smaller cities with middle-of-the-pack income levels also have high social capital and exceptional economic mobility.
For instance, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, both have challenging economic legacies but high levels of social capital. They have emerged as growing, high-opportunity cities, thanks to their exceptional ability to unify around public-private initiatives that make themselves great places to live, work, and build businesses.
Strong social capital supports economic mobility in cities and neighborhoods partly by cultivating “pro-opportunity norms” including reliability, responsibility, and perseverance among young people, according to the JEC’s research. High social capital cities also have an edge in competing for talent. Since 2010, Americans — including each major racial group — have tended to move to metropolitan areas and cities that score high on the JEC’s index, particularly in the Great Plains, Mountain States, and Sun Belt. The explosion in remote working during the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated this movement, fueling growth and opportunity in these cities.
Most high social capital cities stand out for their moderate, pragmatic local political traditions. Relatively strong trust among citizens increases the capacity of these cities to provide for education and quality-of-life amenities. It also reduces the perceived need for heavy-handed government regulation of the local economy. The states that score highest for social capital, mostly in the northern Plains and Mountain States, have been “purple” in recent elections, suggesting that a less divisive style of politics may be both socially and economically beneficial.
Another common element is strong civic institutions, especially nonprofits, religious organizations, and community associations. Decades of research from scholars across the political spectrum — including Robert Nisbet, urbanist Jane Jacobs, the American Enterprise Institute’s Tim Carney, and Putnam himself — confirms that these institutions of civil society play an essential role in building social capital. Homeownership makes a large difference as well. Neighborhoods with high ownership rates tend to have better-than-average social capital.
Finally, it helps to have local governments that focus on public goods like education, infrastructure, and quality-of-life improvements while permitting a high degree of economic freedom. Governments are needed to secure public goods. But if they try to do too much, they can inadvertently crowd out private-sector initiatives and civic institutions, undermining citizen engagement.
Reviving the social capital of America’s cities doesn’t mean aspiring to a fantasy world in which everyone agrees on public issues. It means strengthening local institutions, celebrating civic engagement and rootedness, becoming more intentional about building trust across racial divides, and renewing civility in our collective efforts to address challenges.
Cullum Clark is Director of the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative.