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Understanding Social Capital (Definition) – Making Housing Choices

By Mary McCoy

houseSocial responsibility is the idea that human beings – either acting as individuals or corporations – are obligated to act for the benefit of society at large. With such a broad definition, it’s easy to see that people can manifest social responsibility in a variety of activities, such as utilizing green energy, volunteering at the local soup kitchen, or carpooling to work.

However, though you may not be aware of it, you can also practice social responsibility through your choice of home and neighborhood, which can create a ripple effect through your community and into your city. Your choice of community impacts whether you can link with your neighbors to effectively combat the problems that face your section of society, which is directly related to the idea that socially responsible choices are those that benefit others as much as yourself.

The fact is that communities can only thrive – regardless of income level – when there is an opportunity for members to engage in meaningful and insightful relationships with one another. Throughout American history, these types of relationships formed the bedrock for what came to be known as “civic duty.” Prior to the sprawl of suburban America and the isolation of many families, civic duty was as much about community networking, relationships, and lending a helping hand as it was about voting in elections. And it is these communities – the ones with high-quality relationships between members of different backgrounds – that are better equipped to solve ongoing social problems, such as poverty, homelessness, educational deficits, and even obesity.

Social responsibility, then, is about more than your individual choices for organic produce and free-range chickens – it’s about the way you choose to engage with your community to combat social problems.

What Is Social Capital?

Sociologists call the positive relationships between community members “community capital,” or “social capital.” The amount of which serves as a determination as to whether a group of people is able to work together to solve social problems. Essentially, the health of a community is only as reliable as the health of the community’s networks and trust of one another.

Unfortunately, social capital is exceedingly difficult to both measure and predict – as a consumer, you most likely won’t be able to visit a neighborhood and say, “The social capital here is strong, so I’m going to put my roots down.” Still, it’s important to note that housing choices truly can influence social capital. And since social capital is vital to solving social problems, it’s necessarily a component of socially responsible living. For example, a strong community network could be as simple as good relationships with neighbors, or  feelings of trust and openness between citizens and their public officials. Networking and trust are often the unspoken components of communities that come together to solve social issues and facilitate services for the benefit of all. Communities that are resilient and look after the needs of all people may not have a lot of monetary wealth, but they inevitably have a wealth of networks and trust between community members.

In my career as a social worker, I’ve seen the stark difference in problem-solving between neighborhoods with strong social capital and those with weak social capital. For instance, in my work with women exiting sexually oriented businesses, I have yet to see a problem that these women cannot overcome quickly and effectively together. If a woman has a sick child but has to go to work, it’s only a matter of hours before she gets help from one of her peers. If a woman doesn’t have food for the week, it isn’t long before she’s inundated with groceries. These women may not have wealth, but they have relationships with one another that allow them to quickly solve their problems.

On the other end of the spectrum, I spent time as a social worker at a wealthy hospital, and many of these wealthy families were unable to obtain help with childcare, food, or rental assistance during their hospital stays. The ability to solve problems isn’t a matter of wealth, but a matter of quality relationships and networks.

These networks tend to work best in diverse neighborhoods, where a variety of people are represented in the community. For instance, if an entire community is comprised of young and healthy working men, their work schedules would probably make it difficult to consistently lend a helping hand to a neighbor in crisis. However, communities with a mix of working men and women, retirees, schoolchildren, varying income and educational levels, and different ethnic backgrounds tend to provide the most comprehensive support to one another. They also tend to have differences of opinion that can lead to creative solutions for ongoing neighborhood problems.

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How Housing Choices Impact Social Capital

Before you purchase a home or sign your next lease, consider how your housing choices either deplete or improve social capital. While you may not be able to sense social capital the moment you check out a new property, you can at least consider the behaviors and motivations that are likely to affect it. Once you have an idea of which types of scenarios to avoid, you’ll be better prepared to make a decision that is likely to enhance community capital.

Here are several factors to consider:

  • The Length of Your Commute. No matter your education or income level, you only have 24 hours in your day. Besides the many health problems associated with a long commute, a long daily drive means that you’re likely unable to meaningfully engage in your community due to time constraints. According to a study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a commute should be no longer than 10 miles one way for the sake of cardiovascular health.
  • Diverse Backgrounds. This is the most important characteristic to look for when you’re trying to find a neighborhood with good social capital. Unfortunately, the suburban sprawl of America has made it increasingly difficult to find communities that represent a rich variety of people from different backgrounds. But it’s the representation of different people – whether in income level, ethnicity, education, or religion – that promotes diversity of thought and improves community problem solving. Therefore, look for a neighborhood with people from different backgrounds who actually have the opportunity to interact with one another in public settings. This doesn’t mean that you have to look for a community with stark variations in background – it simply means that you should look for a mix of young with old, blue-collar with white-collar, and a mix of houses of worship on the neighborhood’s street corners.
  • The Number of Community Institutions. Undoubtedly, meeting people from different backgrounds is sometimes easier said than done. But the number and vitality of a community’s public institutions can create opportunities for rich interaction between people. Look for a neighborhood that has an abundance of schools, civic organizations, social service agencies, and other community meeting points. These institutions provide opportunities for networking and trust-building – and you’re unlikely to find such a healthy tapestry of public forums in gated communities or neighborhoods that are on the periphery of suburban sprawl.
  • Walking Distance. If all else fails, look for a community with opportunities to walk to and from public settings, as this introduces more opportunities to meet your neighbors.

Financial Implications

Socially responsible decisions sometimes come with a hefty price tag, but all of the above characteristics may end up helping your bottom line, rather than hurting it. For instance, limiting the length of your commute can help you save money on gas and tolls, and walking your child to school rather than driving also saves money. Interacting with your neighborhood’s institutions – such as churches, fire departments, charities, and clubs – also puts you in a position where you can receive help from neighbors and agencies if you’re ever in dire straits.

Of course, selecting a neighborhood with healthy social capital can increase your cost of living in some ways. Making a choice to live closer to your workplace – such as in a downtown area with a short commute and heterogeneous population – may increase the cost of your housing per square foot. This increase in square-foot cost may preclude a ritzy home in a swanky neighborhood.

However, even making pragmatic choices about the size of your home and its relative newness may snowball into additional socially responsible choices. For instance, a smaller home usually comes with reduced energy consumption, which is a better choice for the environment. You must weigh the financial pros and cons to determine whether the anticipated costs and savings are worth it to your family.

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Final Word

Many Americans approach house shopping with a singular focus on the comfort of a single family unit. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but social responsibility is based on the assumption that individual consumer beliefs and choices influence the broader society. If you want to make a socially responsible housing choice, it’s important that you consider how your home selection will either deplete or enhance the social capital of your neighborhood.

Have you seen social capital make a difference in the lives of your loved ones?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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