Sunday, December 04, 2005

Houston's social capital

Through the generosity of the Education Foundation of Harris County, I was lucky enough to get to attend a fascintating luncheon lecture last week by Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard University. His expertise is the decline of social capital in America. If you go beyond the physical, financial, and human capital (education and skills) of the nation, you get social capital, which is our network of relationships and connections. As a matter of fact, he pointed out an interesting study showing that our personal social capital - basically our address book - is worth more in dollar terms than our educational degrees over the course of our lifetime.

Unfortunately, he shows a whole range of statistics that indicate our stock of social capital has dropped by about half since its peak in the early 1960s. We don't join clubs, participate in civic organizations, eat dinners as a family, or entertain friends (among other measures) nearly as much as we used to. From the web site for his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community":
Putnam warns that our stock of social capital - the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.
I also like some of the surprising facts from his site:
  • Joining one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year (in the lecture, he mentioned that joining two groups cuts it by 75%)
  • Ten minutes of commuting reduces social capital by 10%
Now, where it gets locally interesting is that he was in town to get a better understanding of how our Hurricane Katrina response is related to Houston's social capital. Are we higher than other cities? I tend to think so, but I'll admit it's a biased and subjective opinion. I have a few hypotheses why:
  1. We have a more unified metro area than many other large metros, as discussed before in this blog, due to geography, annexation, and mobility investments that keep people involved in the core (and its civic organizations) rather than fully detaching to the suburbs.
  2. With the lowest cost of living of any major metro, we eat out more (usually a social activity, and we're a great town for it) and we have less financial stress, so we volunteer more and support local charities and civic organizations. If you're struggling to make your house payment every month, you probably don't have a lot of spare time to reach out and help others.
  3. Broadening that thinking a bit further: in general, social activity costs some money (although it doesn't have to, it usually does). If you're feeling poor, then staying home alone and watching TV seems like a nice, affordable option. But, if you feel like you have a comfortable level of disposable income, you're more likely to head out to social events.
  4. More affordable homeownership means stronger communities.
  5. High investments in mobility - esp. freeways - means fewer people have to move neighborhoods to switch jobs and keep a reasonable commute.
  6. We have a culture that is welcoming to newcomers. I don't know exactly how our hospitality culture developed, but it certainly helps integrate newcomers into our social fabric.
  7. Our low population density. When you're around crowds all day long - as people are in most high-density, pedestrian and transit-oriented cities - you may not be real eager to be around more people during your free time in the evenings and weekends. Witness the infamous surliness of New Yorkers. People don't smile at each other on the sidewalk like they do here. And walking with a crowd on the sidewalk or packed in subway car may be a group activity, but it's usually not a social one. Spend a lot of time alone in a car and an office, and you're more eager for human companionship during your free time.
  8. A more stable population. Houston is definitely growing fast, but we also tend to hold onto our natives. Surveys show pretty high local loyalty and satisfaction among Houstonians. Moving breaks relationships and reduces social capital. I think some other cities tend to have a more ephemeral population that moves in and out over time: NY, LA, SF, DC, etc.
  9. A more balanced, minimialist government. I'm probably going out on a controversial limb here, but from what I've read about Europe and elsewhere, when you have a large welfare state, citizens' attitude about problems subtly shifts towards "I don't need to donate or volunteer with a civic organization, the government will take care of it." As pointed out in an earlier post, Houston is more middle-of-the-road politically vs. most other large cities, which tend to be strongly left-leaning. And of course, Texas is a pretty right-leaning state overall. When you know the government's not going to step in, I think you feel a stronger pull to support private charitable, church, or civic organizations to improve things. Houston and Texas may not have much in the way of a public safety net, but I think most people would agree we have a very robust set of private nonprofit institutions.
Well, I'd like to make it an even ten, but I'm tapped. Suggestions welcome in the comments.


At 9:09 PM, December 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While some of your choices should help social capital, specifically, 4,5 and 6, others are root causes of the LACK of social capital. For instance, higher incomes allow for bigger homes with more toys, discouraging community activity. Home theaters are seen as a direct threat to movie houses.

Lower density encourages togetherness? Quite the opposite. A street with 15,000 sf lots will have one-third the number of homes as a street with 5,000 sf lots, and one-third the neighbors.

Poor people socialize less? Try more. Socializing on your street is free. Most diners sit at a table of two or four, not socializing with other diners. By the way, you should check your numbers on financial stress. Houston has a relatively low per capita income and high numbers of late payments and low credit scores.

Ten minutes of commuting reduces social capital by 10%, yet you think Houston's layout INCREASES it? Have you looked at Houston's traffic congestion rankings?

Riding a subway reduces social capital? I think you were stretching to reach 10 reasons. Not only is New York's surliness overrated (it is only directed at strangers), an aversion to crowds suggests to me that a city lacks social capital, in that we are talking about helping others. If you don't like people, you probably don't help them either.

Recent studies show that higher income Americans give less to charity than lower income Americans. A car oriented culture combined with few long-term employees at companies has combined to decimate close knit communities across the US. I believe Houston has a fair amount of Social Capital in spite of its barriers to neighborly living, not because of it.

At 11:50 PM, December 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm never as good as Red at articulating a point of view, but here's my feeble attempt on the topic.
Recently I posted here regarding a lack of racial tension compared to other cities. Whether or not this contributes to our "social capital"-hard to say but it would appear it may be the case. I would cite #8 on your list based on my experience. We do seem to be a city of "keepers". Perhaps this encourages the social investment required to maintain relative civility. There is a wide range of ideologies in our city yet we seem to keep a level head when it comes to our over-all well being. Maybe it's a "don't rock the boat too much" mentality or a back scratching sensibility.
We can macro-tise or micro-tise the reasons; all I can say is I've almost always been proud of the way we have conducted our selves as Houstonians. That pride may be my small contribution to our social capital.

At 11:17 AM, December 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow redscare, I didnt think one way or another on the topic until I read your post. Very persuasive and well written. You should write for the Houston Chronic, you are better than 3/4 of their staff.


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