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Robert Putnam Is Wrong About Social Capital

Too much social capital—not too little—is driving a wedge of income inequality between Americans.
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Downtown Port Clinton, Ohio. (Photo: Nyttend/Wikimedia Commons)

Downtown Port Clinton, Ohio. (Photo: Nyttend/Wikimedia Commons)

"Perhaps you can tell me what 'social capital' means." From one graduate student to another at an academic conference, I was put on the spot thanks to my presentation about global civil society and the World Trade Organization. All I knew about the term I learned in one seminar from Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Reading the face of my inquirer as I summarized the text, I didn't know enough about social capital. However, perhaps, neither did Robert Putnam.

Putnam has a new book out, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. If this Washington Post story accurately captures the gist, social capital is synonymous with financial capital. The more you have, the better off you are. Income inequality as a function of social capital:

The poor children in “Our Kids” are missing so much more than material wealth. They have few mentors. They’re half as likely as wealthy kids to trust their neighbors. The schools they attend offer fewer sports, and they’re less likely to participate in after-school activities. Even their parents have smaller social networks. Their lives reflect the misfortune of the working-class adults around them, who have lost job prospects and financial stability.

The word "trust" often ends up as shorthand for "social capital." More trust means more social capital. Also, more civic engagement (e.g. "after-school activities") means more social capital. The larger the social network, the more social capital a person has. Amass enough social capital and you will end up on the right side of the income inequality divide.

For Putnam, 1950s Port Clinton, Ohio, is the pinnacle of social capital. I'm from Erie, Pennsylvania. I recognize Rust Belt shame when I see it. If we all continued to be members in a bowling league, then all these manufacturing communities wouldn't have fallen from grace. Ridiculous.

Looking back at my hometown, I don't imagine a golden era. I imagine the 1970s. My extended family scattered. My father moved from one General Electric job in Erie to another one in Schenectady, New York. I learned how to survive without much social capital. I became less Rust Belt parochial and more East Coast cosmopolitan. When I bowled, I bowled with strangers.

What's wrong with Port Clinton or Erie? Nothing, really. What's right with Robert Putnam:

He grew up in a working-class Ohio town on Lake Erie where, in the 1950s, poor kids could aspire to Rotary scholarships or factory jobs. He left Port Clinton for Swarthmore, where he met a woman in his introductory political science class who would raise two children with him. They would go on to Harvard. His grandchildren are college-bound, too, or already there, one of them living on the same floor of the dorm where Putnam once bunked.

At Swarthmore, Putnam learned to bowl with strangers. Putnam's children would learn to bowl with strangers. The impetus for civic engagement didn't take many years in a league, but a few months bumping into like-minded compatriots who hailed from someplace outside of the Rust Belt. Homophily replaced trust as a common currency. Globalization demanded people who did not require much social capital to get along.

Too much social capital will place you on the wrong side of the income equality divide. Do you depend on a cousin instead of someone you just met at a bar for a good dentist recommendation? Then you are, more likely than not, poor.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.