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Strong Communities

Strong Communities are those with an abundance of social capital, described by Robert Putnam in his definitive work on the subject, Bowling Alone, as the sum of individual relationships within a given community. Social capital contributes to strong communities and enhances awareness of a community’s connectedness: those who participate with and trust others tend to “become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others.”¹

Trust is both an outcome and an antecedent of relationships, and the social capital developed from relationships contributes to goal achievement of both individuals and groups. Membership in groups, or networks, and sets of shared values often form the core of social capital.² Social capital depends on mutual trust and respect as individuals work together to resolve collective problems.³ Thus, areas with higher levels of social capital are more likely to promote civic action, charitable giving and philanthropy.⁴

Greater civic action in turn often provides a substitute or shock absorber for needed government and market action, targeting such issues as income disparity or safeguarding workers and the environment.⁵ The key to establishing social capital is participation, which can be measured by voting rates, group membership, philanthropic commitments, and informal social contact with friends and neighbors.⁶ Overall, research on social capital asserts that these civic connections and actions help to make communities healthier, wealthier, and wiser.⁷

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Nationally, a wide body of research has shown that social capital is a significant determinant of public health. Higher levels of social capital correlate with reduced rates of major causes of death. American Journal of Public Health estimated that even a slight increase in social capital led to an 8% reduction in overall mortality levels. Similarly, social capital has a strong inverse relationship with mental illness rates.

Social capital is also highly influential to public safety. Many scholarly studies have demonstrated the pronounced connection between social capital and crime rates. One study concluded that an increase in blood donations spurs a reduction in common thefts by 13% and car thefts by 15%. Another report finds a dramatic connection between high social capital and lower-than-average homicide rates.

The benefits of social capital accrue to education, as well. Areas with high social capital exhibit a significant increase of instructional quality in math and reading, which ultimately raises students’ test scores.


Sources cited

1. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 288.

2. Bart Nooteboom, “Social Capital, Institutions and Trust,” Review of Social Economy, Vol. 65, No. 1, March 2007, 32.

3. Putnam, 288.

4. Putnam, 117.

5. Xavier de Souza Briggs, Democracy as Problem Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe, July 18, 2008, 10.

6. “What is Social Capital?” SCI Social Capital Inc., Retrieved from: http://www.socialcapitalinc.org/whatissocialcapital.