The coronavirus pandemic is putting stress on our institutions of social capital, like churches, schools, and civic groups. But the habits formed by being a member of these community institutions may have a role in curbing its spread.
As the impact of pandemic widened grew, the Social Capital Project identified a preliminary relationship between a state- and county-level measurement of social capital and the initial spread of the coronavirus. As of April 15, a one-standard-deviation decrease in the social support sub-index, made up of indicators such as the number of close friends that adults report having, was associated with a 24% increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. (The relationship has somewhat attenuated over time, but is still present; see updated graph below, as of June 24.)
Figure 1: Social Capital Project ' Social Support' subindex and confirmed cases of COVID-19
Two recent papers by academic researchers have also noted the potential mechanisms at work. The first paper, by the University of Chicago’s John M. Barrios and Luigi Zingales, Northwestern University’s Efraim Benmelech and Paola Sapienza, and Rice University’s Yael V. Hochberg, looks at one narrow dimension of what is often considered an outgrowth of strong social capital, voter participation rates (the JEC used voter participation as one of the inputs into its 2018 construction of a social capital index). After controlling for certain characteristics, such as population density, income, and spread of the virus, they find that higher voter participation rates are associated with greater social distancing behavior (measured as visits to non-essential businesses, as tracked by cellphone data.) The same relationship is observed when states lifted restrictions on activities—areas with higher voter participation were more likely to persist in reducing trips to non-essential businesses.
Figure 2: Voter participation rate and decline in non-essential travel (Barrios et al.)
Voting rates alone, of course, do not tell us the full story of civic participation or strong social capital ties. For example, voting participation rates are highly correlated with the share of state residents who volunteered or participated in the decennial census, but only weakly correlated with participation in membership organizations or neighborliness. Barrios, Zingales, et al. also use JEC’s Social Capital Index to check the robustness of their results, and find that high social capital scores are indeed linked to greater social distancing behavior. They also find similar relationships across European countries as well.
Another paper, by Francesca Borgonovi of University College London and PhD student Elodie Andrieu, found a similar pattern. Using the JEC’s social capital data and cell phone mobility data, they also find that counties with higher social capital scores had a steeper decline in travel outside the home than those with low scores. They also cite a 2014 paper by Björn Rönnerstrand of the University of Gothenburg, which found that higher levels of social capital were associated with reduced spread of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. “Although sheltering-in-place orders can effectively alter individual behaviors across all communities,” Borgonovi and Andrieu write, “they are especially effective in communities with high levels of social capital.”
Figure 3: Changes in mobility in US counties in high and low social capital communities (Borgonovi and Andrieu)
These studies add a layer of empirical rigor behind what the SCP had previously hypothesized—that the level of an individual’s embeddedness in a community may indeed play a role in curbing the virus’ spread. Similarly, York University professor of sociology Cary Wu and Arizona State University-affiliated scholar Christos Makridis found a correlation between the JEC’s county-level social capital data and the number of coronavirus cases reported (as of mid-April.) They suggest the relationship may be due to counties with higher social capital being more willing to engage in virus suppression measures.
All of this research remains necessarily speculative. As the pandemic continues to evolve and spread, its geographic profile changes—the most rapid growth in coronavirus cases is no longer in the Northeast, but in the South and West. The social capital-rich Midwest has yet to see growth on the scale of the other regions. It could be that characteristics of states that are correlated with the spread of coronavirus—from higher exposure to international travel to greater reliance on air-conditioning—are also correlated with low levels of social capital.
Figure 4: Daily Growth in Confirmed COVID-19 cases, by region
The novel coronavirus takes the places where we gather in civic, social, and religious communities and turns it into a vector of disease transmission. But those institutions shape our habits of living, and, perhaps, our willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the good of the other. Scholars and researchers will continue to estimate not only how the virus spreads, but how it impacts our economy and society. These studies and others should remind researchers to keep the importance of social capital in mind as a key metric of a healthy society.
Senior Policy Advisor