Government and Social Capital

UPDATE ON THE THIRD MEETING OF THE SAGUARO SEMINAR

Note: this is only a description of some of the issues and ideas considered. For our official set of recommendations, see our BetterTogether report.

The third Saguaro Seminar, Saguaro III, met in Indianapolis in December, 1997, and addressed the interaction of government and social capital. [Note: "social capital" refers to the level of interpersonal connections which enables one to collaborate for mutual gain.] The issue:
How is a community’s stock of social capital affected by government action? In principle, answers to this fundamental question come in two varieties. On the one hand, government action might positively foster social capital creation by providing the infrastructure within which institutions of civil society can flourish. A classic example is the role of the county agent in helping to foster community in rural areas--both the 4-H club and the Grange were originally created by the US Department of Agriculture’s extension service--but there are many other examples from American history. Indeed, the term "social capital" was first used in 1919 by L. J. Hanifan, then West Virginia superintendent of education, advocating an active community-building role for government.

Conversely, government action might (intentionally or unintentionally) deplete social capital by undermining and even destroying key institutions of civil society. "Slum clearance" programs of the 1960s are now notorious for their destruction of the social capital embodied in dense networks of friends and neighbors and patterns of mutual assistance and informal social control. [Herbert Gans’ classic, "The Urban Villagers", chronicled the destruction of the aesthetically poor but civicly rich West End region of Boston from 1958-60 as part of a federal renewal program which resulted in the building of upper-middle class condominiums.] Plausible arguments have been offered that the welfare state itself has similarly undermined institutions of private responsibility.

The take-off point for our conversations was the Front Porch Alliance (FPA), an umbrella program of Mayor Goldsmith to renew seven neglected Indianapolis neighborhoods of 8,000-20,000 residents each. The Goldsmith administration initially reduced taxes and regulatory burdens in these neighborhoods, and subsequently invested large amounts of city funds (saved through privatization) in improving the basic infrastructure of these neighborhoods. When these efforts proved themselves inadequate to turn around the neighborhoods, the Mayor launched FPA to strengthen social capital in these areas. FPA tries to empower neighborhood groups, like churches or community development corporations, to be more proactive in solving community problems. The Mayor’s Office supports these neighborhood organizations by cutting red tape, helping to find project partners for them, making new funds available to them, serving as a bully pulpit, and helping to convene neighborhood groups.

We addressed three questions: 1. Can government strengthen community social capital? [We called this "Outputs", meaning more neighborhood associations, more trusting friendships, greater citizen engagement, etc.] 2. If so, does this strengthened social capital result in neighborhoods that "work better," and in improved lives of neighborhood residents? [We called this "Outcomes", i.e., the ends we would all agree that we want to achieve, such as lower crime rates, higher school achievement rates, cleaner streets, lower drug use, etc.] Implicit in this question is whether the Outputs in question #1 lead to improved Outcomes. Would more people attending meetings, and/or a higher level of trust in government, and/or strengthened mediating institutions lead to better housing, health, jobs and education for neighborhood residents? 3. The Seminar looked as well at the dark side of this proposition: Can we minimize the harm that government does to the stock of social capital in these neighborhoods? And is the development of Social Capital Impact Analysis (SCIA) a useful tool here?

Government Attempts to Foster Social Capital

We investigated the Front Porch Alliance as an effort of government to foster community social capital and found that in participating neighborhoods, it appears to have strengthened the stock of social capital. This is an important finding of the group, namely that government can foster positive social capital. With caveats listed below, the Seminar found that FPA had led to:

  • greater access to, and trust between, church leadership and Mayoral staff;a decline in skepticism towards government;
  • increased collaboration among some neighborhood congregations;
  • increased confidence among neighborhood residents that what they are doing is valued and productive;
  • increased engagement in neighborhood concerns among the mostly middle class who emigrated from these neighborhoods;
  • increased confidence of neighborhood residents of their capacity to act on critical issues; and
  • increased belief by Indianapolitans, not living in these neighborhoods, that something could be done and that residents were determined to act.

Caveats: The group was limited in its findings since the observations were based on meeting very few people, selected by the Mayor's office; the program is new; most data were anecdotal; and we can not know whether the neighborhood changes will have "legs" and survive once Mayor Goldsmith leaves office. The group was less clear that these Output results would lead to changes in Outcomes. Although these have been numerous studies on the benefits of social capital, the Seminar felt that it would have to trust that the increased social capital would ultimately translate Outputs into Outcomes.

The group also had ideas for how the Front Porch Alliance could be strengthened:

  • Develop greater "bridging" social capital between neighborhood residents and, for example, the "bad people or young men" accused of loitering, doing drugs, etc.; or between middle class church members who drove to the churches for weekly meetings and poor neighborhood residents.
  • Find ways to overcome the suspicion with which members of the communities lacking government access viewed the now-expanded access of some leaders of their communities through the FPA program.
  • Combine the strong impact FPA is having at a neighborhood, micro level (e.g., restored parks, a reclaimed house, etc.) with impact on much larger systemic problems (e.g., the severe deterioration in homeownership, poor public transportation, employment, or the drug problem). The group felt that these macro changes could be undoing all the good done at the micro level. Saguaro members wondered whether the very localness and small scale of FPA works against larger solutions by neutralizing potential critics of the city and by not having a vehicle for smaller organizations reaching a more critical scale by aggregating efforts. The group wanted the Goldsmith Administration to reach more boldly with FPA - for example, to stem the tide of falling homeownership by using church social networks and their knowledge of local residents' creditworthiness to put banks at ease in lending locally.
  • More consciously and actively work to build the skills of community residents in dealing with city agencies.
  • Move explicitly to build a leadership role for young people in the neighborhood organizations and groups to which the city turns.
  • FPA has worked to devolve some municipal responsibilities to selected neighborhood churches and not-for-profits, including Community Development Corporations. Consider the alternative of moving resources/dollars to the local level, and have the neighborhoods (not the city) play the key role in allocating these resources. Examples of this are found in Portland, Minneapolis, and Seattle.
  • Selectively decentralize line agencies of government, pushing decision-making authority down to the front-line officials, accessible to neighborhood residents, so that neighborhood groups can deal directly with local supervisors on neighborhood issues.

Minimizing the Harm that Government Does to Social Capital
While the first part of Saguaro III focused on assessing affirmative efforts by government to build social capital; the second part dwelt on the "darker side": How do we minimize government doing harm to social capital? As a vehicle, we discussed whether it was helpful to develop some sort of "litmus test", designed to ensure that governmental programs "do minimal harm" to core components of civil society, notably parents, the family, and the institutions of civil society. Would it be useful to have Social Capital Impact Analysis (SCIA) of some kind? The group felt strongly, almost unanimously, that social capital impact analysis would be a very useful tool for the Saguaro Seminar to distribute. The concerns and issues seemed to concentrate in five areas: 1) how formal it would be and at what stage would it be used: 2) would it substantively change policy-making or would it be manipulated; 3) who would do this; 4) would it only apply to governmental action; and 5) effective ways to distribute this idea. The group agreed to convene a smaller working group on social capital impact and try to develop thinking on social capital impact analysis to bring back to the Saguaro group at a later stage. The group would consider all of the above questions as well as a definition of social capital, the purpose of social capital impact analysis, whether the analysis would apply to local or national governmental action, what the measures of social capital would be, and some examples of its application.

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Readings

We have created a list of related readings and links, available via the link below.

Related Readings: Government and Social Capital

Meetings

MEETINGS:

Meeting I – General Introduction/history
(Cambridge, MA, April 17-19, 1997)
Background meeting focusing on social capital and lessons from the Progressive Era that could apply to the current crisis.

Meeting II – Youth and civic engagement (Boston, MA, September 8-10, 1997) Our second meeting focused on adolescent youth and civic engagement.

Meeting III – Government and social capital (Indianapolis, IN, December 7-9, 1997) Hosted by Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith (a Saguaro participant) this meeting focused on the inter-relation between government and community engagement: both how government can affirmatively boost civic engagement and how to minimize any harm that government does to civic engagement.

Meeting IV – Politics and social capital (Los Angeles, CA, February 13-14, 1998) The fourth meeting addressed the relationship between and issues surrounding politics and civic engagement.

Meeting V – Faith and social capital (Washington, DC, June 12-13, 1998) At this meeting we examined faith-based efforts which weave a stronger community fabric.

Meeting VI – Work and social capital (Tarrytown, NY, October 16-17, 1998) Our sixth meeting focused on work and civic engagement.

Meeting VII – The arts and social capital (Santa Fe, NM, June 11-13, 1999) The seventh meeting focused on the arts and civic engagement.

Meeting VIII – Technology and social capital (Cambridge, MA, March 31-April, 2000)