Friday, April 7, 2017

Social Capital, a Key to Our Future

There were a couple of interesting articles on finance that I have seen in the past week.  They speak of a challenging environment for us, and point out that many of the circumstances we face are not unique.  On a national level, Governing magazine pointed out a shift occurring in state finances that impact their ability to meet current and future demands.  The following two articles highlight this issue:

A separate article that I read in the Des Moines Register this past weekend points out the unique challenges faced by mid-sized (10,000-50,000 population) communities in Iowa.  We face issues that make maintain a solid community difficult; not that they cannot be overcome, but we have challenges that both smaller and larger communities to not face.  The article focused on Clinton, but did so as much to point out the issues that all communities our size face in Iowa.  The article can be read here:

These articles help to illuminate the fact that we cannot think that we can continue to offer the same services that we have in the past; the funding environment won’t sustain it.  They also speak of the need to have focused, sustained efforts on a community level to address the issues raised.  One such effort in our community is the Bridges Out of Poverty Initiative.  We have had two classes graduate from the “Getting Ahead” training, with another scheduled to graduate in June.  Part of the goal is to build relationships, a network that can provide social capital, to the participants.  What is social capital?  I saw a definition of it that went as follows:  “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Bridges is focused on building those networks beginning at the level of the individual, the people who get involved in the program as participants and/or partners in the journey.  Bridges recognizes that the Getting Ahead training is only a beginning.  The social ties that are necessary take time.  Bridges has a second program for its Getting Ahead graduates entitled Staying Ahead.  These networks cannot work without a network of partners to build into.  We need people to get involved in this initiative as well.  Anyone who wants to see our community succeed is encouraged to begin by attending a Staying Ahead Teammate training to be held on Monday, April 17th at 6:00 p.m. at The Loft.  Bridges has a goal of getting 50 people to attend this training, and then take the pivotal role of building into other’s (and their own) lives through the Staying Ahead program.

How important is this?  The stats highlighted in the Des Moines Register article are alarming enough, but I would also encourage you to look at the work of sociologist Robert Putnam.  Putnam published the book Bowling Alone in 2001, a book which highlighted the damage that has been caused to our social networks through the increasing disconnectedness, the loss of civic engagement, that is occurring in society.  People are less likely to be involved in groups such as the PTA, Kiwanis, or bowling leagues.  The end result of this civic engagement is that the community as a whole has less social capital.  Putnam has carried his research further, though, in his most recent book, Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis.  In this book, Putnam discusses the impact of the loss of social capital he highlighted in Bowling Alone, particularly in terms of how this is increasing the inequality gap between those with the potential for upward mobility and those who do not.  In Our Kids, Putnam documents that one of the major things that separates children from families in the top 25 percent of households measured by income and education from their counterparts in the bottom 25 percent is social capital; their well-off parents were engaged and enmeshed in far-reaching networks that made life better for their kids. 

We simply cannot solve the problems we face as a community without working to overcome this gap.  That is what the Bridges program is all about.  I strongly encourage you to find a way to be involved.  Vern Reed has been the champion of this program; if you do not know how to be involved, he will certainly find an avenue for you.  Vern is a teacher in the West Burlington school system, and I am sure would be more than willing to connect you with a place in Bridges.