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To reduce poverty, donors and practitioners often focus on helping individuals access programs and address basic needs, such as employment training or affordable housing. These strategies are essential, but they do not fully address what’s needed for families to sustainably reach economic stability or pursue economic opportunities. In addition to social services, individuals with low incomes also require the right connections in their communities. To maximize their investments, anti-poverty donors should also build the social capital of families with low incomes.
Think about a time when a friend gave you a tip about a job or a family member picked you up after a medical procedure. In these cases, you were able to get help by tapping into the generosity of people in your life. Social capital refers to resources – information, emotional, and tangible support – we acquire through our networks of relationships. Scholars find social capital helps individuals in low-income communities maintain stability by facilitating access to critical resources that money would otherwise buy, including transportation, child care, or housing. A trusted friend can make the difference between having a place to stay following an unexpected job loss and sudden homelessness. Yet in Detroit, where our work at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions centers on economic mobility, many residents cannot count on support from others. In a 2018 survey, 15% of residents say they have no one to confide in. When asked how often they could ask someone to lend them a small amount of money if needed, 42% said a little or none of the time, while 39% of residents said all or most of the time.
Beyond assistance with basic needs, people also leverage social capital to secure opportunities to advance economically. Larger social networks help, but the diversity of our networks in terms of income, educational attainment, or employment status matters too. A new study by Opportunity Insights finds that low-income children who grow up in communities with higher levels of interaction between people of different incomes are much more likely to rise out of poverty. If your mother earns $30,000 annually as a home health care aide, you might benefit from interacting with a friend’s mother who is an engineer and earns $170,000 annually; she might explain her job and tell you about a scholarship she received to earn her degrees. Yet millions of Americans with low incomes live in communities where poverty is concentrated, making it difficult to forge meaningful connections with people with higher incomes. Black, Native American, and Latino children are more likely to live in these neighborhoods than white children, due to the legacy of racial segregation and the persistent failure to distribute opportunity equitably across communities.
What does investing in social capital development look like in practice? It means supporting programming that creates opportunities for participants to develop larger and more diverse social networks. For example, Warrior Women Against Poverty pairs mothers who are experiencing homelessness with female mentors from the wider community, who offer mentorship, resources, and friendship.
Donors might also support programs that offer regular, meaningful engagement opportunities between participants, not one-off workshops. Brilliant Detroit, whose work focuses on improving kindergarten readiness and grade-level reading, offers families community dinners, peer-led mental health circles, and literacy workshops at a network of residential houses designed to nurture relationships. These groups often hire community members or program alumni as staff, to facilitate trusting and mutually beneficial relationships between individuals of similar backgrounds. Social service groups can also incorporate cohort-based models to service delivery. T.E.A, which serves women experiencing housing insecurity and unemployment in Detroit, takes this approach to delivering career readiness and housing assistance services, enabling clients to build relationships and motivate each other as they seek economic security.
In addition, donors could support the development and activation of public spaces – also known as social infrastructure – throughout their communities. Public spaces can facilitate interactions and host programming where residents can meet one another, such as children’s playgroups or book clubs, but these spaces are often underfunded or absent from low-income neighborhoods. Ensuring that each community has strong organizations offering engaging programming in community spaces helps foster connections among neighbors.
Thriving communities must have affordable housing, after-school programs, and living-wage jobs, plus networks of neighbors and friends who help each other access these opportunities. Donors should consider social capital as an essential element to ensuring all families have access to the resources needed to pursue economic stability and prosperity.
Other ways to get involved:
- In addition to supporting Brilliant Detroit, T.E.A., and Warrior Women Against Poverty in Detroit, consider supporting organizations in your community that focus on building social ties, particularly among families with low incomes.
- Consider spending time mentoring young people and/or adults in your community.
- Learn more about social capital and economic mobility here, here, and here.
Afton Branche-Wilson is the assistant director of community initiatives at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, an interdisciplinary initiative that partners with communities and policymakers to find new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty through action-based research.