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Podcast: Expanding Opportunity by Strengthening Families, Communities, and Civil Society

Podcast: Expanding Opportunity by Strengthening Families, Communities, and Civil Society

At the Joint Economic Committee, we believe knowledge of social capital is vital to achieving our goal of expanding economic opportunity for all Americans. Join us as we invite hearing witnesses to engage in a deeper social capital conversation on The Social Capitalists Podcast: Post-hearing Discussions with the Joint Economic Committee Republicans.

Listen to Episode 2, subscribe, or read the transcript below:

Scott Winship: Hello, I’m Scott Winship, Executive Director of the Joint Economic Committee and director of the JEC’s Social Capital Project and this is the Social Capitalist Podcast. On the podcast we invite our hearing witnesses to join JEC staff and opposed hearing discussion so we can get a little more in the weeds, dive more deeply into the issues we’re covering during the hearing (hopefully have a little fun along the way). We just finished our first hearing on expanding opportunity by strengthening families, communities and civil society. You can read our witnesses’ opening statements and watch the full hearing on our website ( as well as read our new paper titled “The Wealth of Relations” which touched on many of the same issues discussed during the hearing. And today on our inaugural podcast I’m excited to be joined by Dr. Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Patrick Sharkey who’s a professor of sociology at New York University. Thank you both for agreeing to be on the podcast.

Ryan Streeter: Great to be here, thanks!

Patrick Sharkey: Thanks Scott!

Scott: Well, this is our inaugural podcast so we’ll see how things go. This will determine the content and the format of all future podcasts to come so no pressure on anybody at this point.

Ryan: No pressure.

Scott: That’s right. Why don’t we just start off, if you could give an informal summary of what you talked about in your testimony and how you think about social capital and opportunity? Ryan, do you want to go ahead and start?

Ryan: Yea, sure. Thanks Scott. I talked a little bit in my remarks about some of the data that we have from a survey that we just recently published on social capital and civic wellbeing. And focused specifically on differences between people that are highly civic and people who are highly social, people that are both and people that are neither. We use questions like you would expect in our survey. How many organizations are you actively involved in, that you volunteer in or that you’re a member of? And we grouped people by people that are in more than two and people that are in one or two and people that are in one or less. And then we also looked at people on a sociability scale. Just, how many friends and family members, neighbors do you talk to every week? What kind of ways do you interact with them? And just looked at how these things played out through other questions that we asked. Basically we found that when people are both civically engaged and very social, they’re happier, they’re more committed to their communities. But, what really emerged in our data is people who are civic. Even if they’re not social, generally tend to have stronger attachments to their communities. What shows up interestingly in our data is that being civic, being engaged in your community creates attachments that just having a lot of friends and hanging out with them at the café down the street doesn’t necessarily achieve. Is that all Americans? No, that’s about a third of us. About a third of us are joiners. I don’t think we all have to be joiners for America’s civic life to work very well. But, what I used those data points to suggest is that remembering that there are people willing to invest in their communities, who want to be engaged, they find fulfillment in that and communities are better as a result of it, that’s something that we should think about in policy. And so, the second half of my remarks were really focused on revisiting the past. We went through this interesting season in the early 1990s where we had drastic policy reforms where we had school reform to policing reform to welfare reform to housing reform. When you go back and you look at the deliberations that led up to those policies, the idea that there are these fundamental units of civil society, these communities that are really important were actually factored into the policy design. It doesn’t mean that all of those policies were an overwhelming success in every way. Some of them were more successful than have previously been reported. We know that because of people like you Scott who have written about welfare reform’s effects and the like.

Scott: This is why I invited Ryan onto the show.

Ryan: Yea, that’s right. And what I am suggesting and for some reason we can theorize why, we’ve gotten away from that in the last ten years or so. Maybe we can talk about that later. But, this notion that communities, families and neighborhoods should be central in our domestic policy design has largely been absent from our policy-making discourse over the last ten years or so.

Scott: Excellent, I defiantly want to come back to that point as well. Pat, could you explain for our vast, millions of listeners what you discussed in the hearing, which was attended also by thousands I should say if you missed it? It’s really unclear why you were not there, but you did miss some incredible remarks by Pat. Tell us about your testimony and you’re broader research.

Patrick: Yea, sure. Well first off, I should say that the last thing that Ryan just said about developing policy that recognizes that we’re not just trying to provide resources or benefits to individuals walking through the world, isolated from everyone else, that’s crucial. I do think that social policy often forgets that people are better when they are in communities and within networks that extend across different realms of their lives. And if we had that mind when we develop social policy then we have a much better chance of building stronger communities. So, that was really the focus in my comments: how can we build stronger communities? And I think some of the context there that we have to keep in mind is that there are good reasons to worry about our community lives. Neighborhood inequality is severe. There are ways in which it is growing. So the degree to which the poor live apart from the rich has been growing since the 1970s. Neighborhood inequality is multi-generational. It affects parents and then it is transmitted to the next generation with consequences across generations. And then there is also a new form of inequality; inequality between cities and regions where we have some parts of the country that are thriving, where wages are rising, where there is strong economic growth and other parts of the country that have been left out. Where opportunities are scarce, where people really feel isolated from economic opportunity. And so, the challenge that I framed in the hearing is: how do we respond to this? How do we respond to these new challenges that are facing America’s communities? And there are different ways to approach these problems. You can focus on mobility, moving people to new places that offer greater opportunities. You can focus on breaking down the barriers that are in place in cities and towns across the country like exclusionary zoning policies that limit the opportunities for people to move wherever they choose, wherever the best place for their family and their children is. But there is also a set of policies that focus on investment. How can we invest in communities so that every neighborhood across the country has that core set of institutions: schools, libraries, community centers that really prop up a community? That provide the foundation for community life and that’s really what I focused on.

Scott: Great! Ryan, let’s go back to your point. I think it’s fair to say everybody when they think about the 1990s, they think of three things. They think of flannel, they think of Collio and they think of the social capital based policy innovations of the 1990s. I think that’s fair to say.

Ryan: Yea, maybe Pearl Jam.

Scott: Sure! Right, exactly!

Patrick: That goes with the flannel though.

Scott: Alanis Morissette perhaps. Why is it that we left all of this grunge, everything, why did we leave specifically policies that had this grounding in social capital behind in the nineties? What happened between then and now?

Ryan: I’m not entirely sure. The nineties have been described as a vacation from history so maybe that was just part of the deal. All kinds of good things were happening in the nineties: a good economy, and no really big wars after the Gulf War, etc. I think more seriously there is something about the post 9-11 environment that did change some things. We entered a new era and our domestic policy making and our foreign policy making were really separated from one other in a way that they hadn’t been during the Cold War when they were linked by some common themes and the like. And domestic policy was dealing with some new challenges. From the Bush years through the Obama years you had some big things that were taken on. Whether it was deciding to figure out a national role for education reform, expanding Medicare for seniors by adding prescription drugs then the taking on the ACA, then Obamacare. The discussions were all these big, national discussions. That still doesn’t answer why we moved away. You could still very much envision a scenario within which they didn’t happen. Probably some of it had to do with the Bush Administration’s attempt to focus on faith based and community organizations and nationalizing that approach too. In some people’s minds, a lot of Republicans didn’t like that. They started not talking those ways. Then you had this Republican backlash to the early Obama decisions on the stimulus and on Obamacare and those sorts of things that lead to the Tea Party movement. When you look at, and I do this in a separate essay I wrote in the National Affairs in the spring issue looking at the rhetoric of the Tea Party versus the rhetoric of say the Republicans of 94’. It’s really different. There’s the contract with America that Newt Gingrich and others lead, but there’s this contract from America (now I forget the name of it) that the Tea party lead that is less known but was crowd sourced. The funny thing is that it was crowd sourced in a very grass-roots way. But, the idea that communities are the solution to our biggest problems is totally absent from the rhetoric. I think that you’ve seen Democrats moving away from this as well, where we’ve tended to probably for a variety of reasons maybe the internet and social media in their evolved state have contributed to this. We know that we stay within cocoons ideologically now. And because of changes in the way that news is consumed and who is delivering it, we generally tend to be obsessed with national issues. It just is where cable news is, it’s where talk radio is. Focusing on national issues has become the big thing. On both the right and the left. I don’t think I’ve even answered your question, I think I’ve just rambled and described some phenomena that hopefully could be pieced together to something like an answer.

Scott: (laughs)

Ryan: But I have been encouraged over the last couple of years. There seems to be a renewed interest in part because of what you guys are doing here at the Social Capital Project. But, I think also just because of the exhaustion with our national politics, there has been a renewed interest both on the right and the left in revisiting themes of subsidiarity and federalism, the integrity and sovereignty of local municipalities and those sorts of things and their role in solving public policy problems. So I think we’re at a good time to capitalize on that.

Scott: Excellent, we’ll come back and talk about some of your other research on localism in a second. Pat, one of the things that I think we didn’t get to hear about your work during the hearing which is certainly relevant to the topic and I know that you’ve done great work on is your research around violence and its impact on kids and communities. Can you say more about that?

Patrick: Yea, sure. Well I started working on violence basically I initially was studying urban inequality generally and then the more evidence I looked at, the more I started to think that violence is really the crucial ingredient, the crucial mechanism which makes neighborhood inequality or at least one of the primary reasons why neighborhood disadvantage in particular is so damaging. It has such long lasting consequences. It was really the data that lead me to focus on violence. And then the more work I did, the more severe the consequences of community violence looked. So violence, you know, has a direct effect on victims and perpetrators, but it also extends across entire communities. And when communities become violent, families are less likely to invest in a neighborhood and want to raise kids there. But it’s also businesses that are less likely to open up shop and teachers are less likely to commit to a school district. People are less willing to venture out into public space to use public amenities like parks and playgrounds and so forth. So I just have started to see violence as really the fundamental challenge of cities. Now the good news is violence has plummeted. So across the country the level of violence has fallen by roughly half since the early 1990s. And in a bunch of major cities, D.C. being one of them, but New York, L.A., San Diego the city just completely has transformed as violence has fallen by 75%, 80%, 90% in New York. And so my research is really just looking at how has this transformative change affected unban inequality and particularly urban poverty, the experience of urban poverty. The quick finding, you still have to purchase the book. The quick finding is that it has just had a transformative effect. And the greatest effects have gone to the most disadvantaged segments of the population. The question that remains is how do we continue to reduce violence, but do so in a different way. Do so in a way that does not rely heavily on the police and the prison as a primary mechanism to respond to violent crime. Do so in a way that really invests in community organizations that we know have tremendous capacity to control violence and to provide informal social controls over public space, but that just have never been given that same commitment.

Scott: Yea, we recently put together a social capital index and one of the components of that index was essentially the violent crime rate. And our thinking was it’s an indicator of what I think sociologists call collective efficacy. You’ve certainly been one of the pioneers on that. But the point you raise now I think is something that we hadn’t thought as much about which is that places that have a lot of crime it does redound to the other institutions in a community. And it can have these self-reinforcing downward spiral qualities. So that’s certainly a hopeful story that crime is going down and see how that goes. You don’t put much credence into the bump that some places have experienced in crime recently?

Patrick: Well in those places it’s a huge issue, but you know, most of them it hasn’t persisted. So, Baltimore is a huge concern, but Chicago, violence skyrocketed up for two years and then fell just as quickly. And it is almost back to where it was just before the spike. So we need to maintain urgency, but there hasn’t been any kind of large scale change. So just very quickly, the good part about this is that violence makes everything else impossible. So when it starts to fall, when it goes away, it makes lots of other stuff possible. It makes it possible to think about communities that can transform and revitalize. And I think that’s where we are on a bunch of cities. There’s really great potential to invest in cities right at this moment because they’re finally safe places.

Scott: And I think people have forgotten just how much crime there used to be. John Singleton died yesterday at 51 which is awful, but it instantly made me go back to “Boys in the Hood” which was sort of a formative movie for me as a kid growing up in Maine.

Patrick: Well, it was really relatable and a descriptive exercise for people who have lived in and around cities at that time.

Scott: Yes! And really you look back at it and it really was a time where gang violence was probably over magnified into this pervasive thing. It really is quite different these days when you, especially in Washington, D.C., you walk through neighborhoods that fifteen years ago were not safe places. And today are now home to yuppies and folks of all sorts of different backgrounds. It really is remarkable. Ryan, so you’ve also, I know you’ve spent a lot of your time at A.E.I. trying to get more people thinking creatively about localism: the benefits of localism, what public policies can do to promote localism. What are the benefits of localism? Why aught policy makers, why should they be thinking about ways to empower lower levels of government versus focusing on federal programs?

Ryan: Yea, and for clarification on the outset, I’m not trying to get people to think creatively about localism. I’m just trying to get people to think about localism. It’s just you know for starters, that would be a small victory. No, I think that, there’s no pre-fabricated view of federalism here at work at A.E.I, it’s just when we deal with domestic policy design, policy research, it just becomes clear that you know that so many of the problems that we talk about, again in our national politics and national forums, it’s really hard to solve this stuff if you don’t actually have some kind of regional and local strategy. And that goes for education policy, it goes for criminal justice reform, reentering, people that are reentering from incarceration and to workforce development which I think is a frontier that we really haven’t subjected to the same kind of reform minded work. It’s very difficult to attack these problems of inequality where they exist without thinking about these things regionally. I have yet to find a national, federal solution that would actually do what a lot of advocates for them say they do. Not to say those aren’t bad policy ideas for what they can achieve. But, in terms of really addressing some of these problems of sustained lack of access to upward mobility, I think you need to actually think about the role of local institutions or you just won’t succeed. More fundamentally kind of at the anthropological level I think there’s just a lot of evidence that we are localists just by nature. You know, it can be a bad thing. Our tribalism when it is exclusionary, and you’ve got a little bit too much bonding social capital and not enough bridging social capital you can actually reinforce bigotry, you can reinforce exclusionary thinking and all of these things that our nation has struggled with from the very beginning. But, also at the same time, you can’t deny the reality that people identify with where they’re from and they care about where they’re from. And so involving them on the basis of that care is actually a pretty good thing. And we see this in the survey that I referenced earlier. We saw this in several different interesting ways. When you ask people where they get a strong sense of community from or some sense of community. You find that people are, you know they get a very strong sense of community the city that they’re from and the neighborhood where they live. More than their political ideology or their ethnic background. And so we hear a lot about identity politics today and it’s a thing and all of that. But when you ask people, you know, where your sense of community is, you know, they’re like, “it’s where I live.” You know, I’m defensive of my hometown. I poke fun of my home town, it’s OK, but when other people do it I get defensive. For some reason, just like we get defensive if someone makes fun of our names even though we didn’t actually choose our names. Most of us didn’t. There’s this attachment, you know, that’s kind of a real thing. It’s not just our survey this has been true in other survey data that you know. People are much more confident in their local institutions of government than they are state and federal governments. That trust has been declining for decades. The confidence in local institutions has remained consistently high at roughly the same levels. Is that because local governments are less prone to graft and you know, they don’t have transparency problems. Of course not! You know, some of the best examples of the weirdest kind of corruption are in local governments. There’s just something about the proximity that you believe that you can actually have an effect on what’s going on in your local community. So I think the benefits of strong communities are clear. And Pat’s written about that at length and talked about it eloquently in the hearing today. If those things are true, and they are, then it really doesn’t make sense for us to think about public policy making without including them. So that’s really what’s kind of driving my emphasis on localism right now, just because a lot of our so called “national problems” in domestic policy really can’t be addressed if you don’t have an approach that really involves communities and has them investing back in their neighborhoods.

Scott: Completely agree. Let’s do one more round of questions maybe. So Pat, based on your research, can you tell us what happens to social capital when there is an economic downturn or loss of jobs in a neighborhood?

Patrick: Well, my sense is that it’s a combination of an economic downturn and loss of jobs combined with the local infrastructure. And by that I mean, actually a colleague at NYU, Eric Klinenberg, has used this term, social infrastructure to describe the set of local institutions and places really that bring people together, that try to integrate people into the community. And really the consequences of a downturn, the consequences of job loss become much more severe if we don’t have that set of institutions which could be reentry programs, job training programs, you know, child care centers, social services providers that allow people to have support, transportation support, wage subsidies to get them back on their feet, to get them back into the labor force, or at least get them moving toward that goal. So I really see it as a combination. It’s, job loss is one thing and I certainly don’t want to downplay the consequences of large scale job loss. But it is exacerbated and it starts to tear apart the fabric of communities when you don’t have those core institutions in place.

Ryan: Hey, can I just say something about that too.

Patrick: Please.

Ryan: Just in terms of social infrastructure thought of as sort of basic amenities and the like. We’ve got a report coming out in a couple of weeks which we’ll dig down into this in greater detail. We’ve written about this a little bit. We found across municipality types, large cities, suburbs, small towns, when people are within a walking distance or a short drive from a certain collection of these amenities or institutions: schools, libraries are really important to Americans. You mentioned this earlier today Pat in your remarks. Today even in this digital age, people still really value libraries as community institutions. The kind of amenities that people think about in neighborhoods from access to grocery stores which are really important to people and bars and restaurants and gyms and all these things. We asked about all these things and found that it’s amazingly consistent across municipality types. When people live within approximate distance to a large collection of these things. Whiter it’s a small town or big city, they are more involved in their community, they are less lonely, they are happier. There’s something really important about the way our communities are designed. So when people live just within a close range of one or two but really are not close to other things and you think about this particularly in terms of food deserts or parts of communities where people are just living in tracks of land with dilapidated housing and not access to institutions that people care about. It has a real effect. It has all kinds of rippling effects. And so we were surprised by how pronounced this effect was. So I think if anything I hope what we do will generate more interest in kind of researching some of these questions.

Scott: Well the most important thing I heard in the hearing today I think was that if I live in a neighborhood that has a lot of gyms that I will be happier, even if I do not use the gym.

Ryan: Even if you do not go, just knowing a gym is close by seems to matter for people even if they don’t actually go there.

Scott: And then not using the gym is the key part for me. So thank you for that information.

Ryan: That’s right! However we can help.

Scott: I think it’s time for us to end. I did want to sort of end by highlighting finding that Pat has had that goes back not quite a decade at this point I don’t think. Pat has been studying economic mobility for a while. Our paths have intersected at various points. And Pat wrote a report for us at the Pew charitable trust when I was there about “Black White” differences in mobility and probably one of the most striking findings that I’ve ever seen in social sciences I think came from Pat’s work. He had put together some results that looked at people who were born in the late 1950s early 1960s and essentially was looking at concentrated poverty differences between blacks and whites and he gave us this really depressing chart that showed essentially, this isn’t going to be quite right, but essentially 6% of white kids had experienced over the course of their childhood a level of neighborhood poverty that about two thirds of black kids had experienced of high neighborhood poverty. So that was pretty shocking to me and I don’t come to this stuff without any kind of background. I thought about it. I was like, well, you know, maybe these folks, they were born like right on the cusp of the civil rights movement achieving some of its major victories. Maybe that wouldn’t be as bad for kids born more recently. And then we thought about it and we realized there is a data set for kids that were born in the early 1980s and Pat went back and took a look at that. And lo and behold the chart that came back was almost a carbon copy of the first generation. Essentially nothing had changed over this twenty or twenty five year period. I think that that is just a crucial finding. Even when you think you’re comparing whites and African American who have sort of experienced their own childhood poverty. Even if that’s the case they have not experienced concentrated neighborhood poverty that really is sort of a unique barrier I think to African American kids. Hopefully we are going to continue to look into those sorts of inequalities on the Project. Sorry to paraphrase your own research.

Patrick: No, that was a really nice plug. Thank you.

Scott: I’m very eloquent.

Patrick: (Laughs)

Scott: No, it’s always been one of those findings that has stuck with me. I mean that’s in Pat’s book, “Stuck in Place” I believe.

Patrick: “Stuck in Place”

Scott: Well thank you both for your time this afternoon. I know these hearings can be exhausting. You guys actually sat through two rounds of questions which I’ve not seen before. You’re both still standing. Hopefully we can keep you engaged in the Project and keep you involved in future work that we do. Thanks again to Ryan Streeter and Pat Sharkey. Thanks to you all for listening. And we will be back with our next hearing hopefully in a month or so. Thanks for listening.

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