Poverty and Social Capital

One of the least-recognized consequences of the gap between rich and poor and the growth and perpetuation of the ALICE phenomenon is the effect of poverty on social capital. Social capital is a shorthand term for networks of relationships among people in a society; the ubiquity and strength of those relationships has been shown to be essential to the successful functioning of that society.

In the wake of Trump’s disastrous behavior at the G7 meetings, The New Yorker had a fascinating article about Justin Trudeau and the extent to which Canadian social capital allowed him to (politely but firmly) stand up to America’s Bully-in-Chief. Trudeau made it clear that he and his country would not be intimidated.

Trump responded with gangster-style threats and sneers, followed by more threats and sneers from his associates. Trudeau, a young man generally thought to lack the great prime-ministerial gravitas of his late father, Pierre, emerged as a statesman and a leader. On Monday, the Canadian Parliament voted its unanimous support for his statements.

So what is it about Canadian national character that allows the country to stand up to bullies?

Famously obliging in attitude—how do you get twenty-five Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Please get out of the swimming pool”—Canadians are also notoriously stubborn of spirit. What gives them backbone alongside their gift for compromise, allowing them to bend equably and then snap back sharply? …

Canadian democracy is supported by some of the strongest social capital in the world, exceeded only, by most academic measures, by that of Scandinavia and New Zealand. Trust in social institutions, in the honesty of government and the solidarity of citizens, remains strong in Canada, even when its results, as with the election of Doug Ford—the smarter brother of the late Rob Ford, the onetime mayor of Toronto—to the premiership of Ontario, is not what progressive-minded people might like. Though the United States now ranks below Canada, it still scored high in recent registries. But it once led the world in social capital. Can it do so again?

Social capital is generated through civic involvement. Adam Gopnik, who authored this essay, refers to a seminal study by Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone fame), analyzing differences in governance between north and south Italy.

Putnam discovered that the existence of “intermediate institutions” was crucial: in northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds, service groups, and choral societies, regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives.” In southern Italy, by contrast, where patterns of civic engagement are far weaker, regional governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient.

As most of us learned in U.S. History, the first person to notice the importance of civic engagement to the probity of governing institutions was de Tocqueville, who attributed what he deemed to be laudable American characteristics to widespread participation in the new country’s numerous civic and voluntary organizations.

Civic engagement, however, requires resources–namely time and energy. ALICE families–struggling to put food on the table, balancing the cost of diapers against the due date for the rent, stressed when the ten-year-old car or the twenty-year-old furnace gives up the ghost, or a doctor’s bill must be paid–have neither.

It’s no wonder the voices of the poor are so seldom heard in the halls of our legislatures, or via the ballot box. When simply surviving is the order of the day–when it consumes all of your time and energy–there isn’t anything left over from which to construct social capital.


  1. I grew up in WI. 12 Miles from the state capitol. We had more than one family with kids in our school who did NOT have running water in their homes. I went to reposes a car one time and found an entire family living in a farm structure of some sort — dirt floor — no water.
    Even starting with this level of poverty, I know that some of my classmates were able to move on. There were jobs and affordable universities.
    People could escape the circumstances of their birth.
    I am not sure that is the case today.

  2. I hope you heard Mika this morning on MSNBC. Her plaintive monologue about the disaster at the southern border put the blame on precisely the one person who could end it by Executive Order, Donald J. Trump. Along with his coven-like supporters in politics and religion, and in the Craven Congress, he is leading the GOP to their self-imposed Midterm Electoral Disaster. the Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan has bought its ‘Ticket To Ride’ on Trump soiled, destructive and vulgar coattails.

  3. When it comes to social capital, I also like to look at the Happiness Index which assesses the happiness of its citizenry. How are the systems of their country working for the people?

    The top three are democratic socialist countries in Scandinavia…Finland, Norway, Denmark.

    In 7th place is Canada. In 18th place is the USA.

    We also have a Social Progress Index which shows Canada ranking in a “very high” category with most of the democratic socialist countries. USA is in the next grouping of “high” ranking.


    So, where does this ‘American Exceptionalism’ come from? It’s pure propaganda.

    We have one of the most corrupted governments in the world. In most countries, bribing a public official would get you sent to prison. In the USA, we make our public officials millionaires by allowing them to be bribed so the captains of industry continue elevating their stock price.

    In short, we place profit over people.

    All those countries ranking higher than us on the Social Progress and Happiness Indices are also considered high tax rate environments (The Koch brothers say high taxes are bad – Government is bad.) The government of these successful countries with lots of social capital actually serve the people, not a select few Oligarchs and their banks who toss money at our public officials.

    Our economic system has run its course and is unsustainable. There are brilliant economists and other professionals working on what’s NEXT…

  4. Has any previous president of either party ever held a closed door meeting with ONLY Republican or Democratic party members of the House of Representatives to discuss an issue which is tearing this country apart and has the world turning against us en masse?

    Has either party ever had full control – a strangle hold – on all three branches of this government? Has the 1% of the wealthy in this country ever had full control – a total financial hold – on either party at any time in our history…thanks to our Supreme Court enacting Citizens United, a cruel misnomer? Has this country ever been mistrusted by nations around the world, other than those using thug-tactics to rule by physical force and thievery?

    Our own Civil War was far more humane than what we are forced to live with today under Trump’s Fascist rule. Even in Europe during WWII; the populace knew the basics of those in control over them; we have no idea what Trump will do next or who he will turn his guns on. As he drives us deeper and deeper into the mire which covers this country now; not only Washington, D.C., is swampland; the crisis at our southern border is in danger of spreading to the northern border but…it will be Canada blocking Americans from invading their country to escape Trumpism. This is not like those evading the Viet Nam draft seeking asylum across our northern border; this will rival Jews seeking asylum from Hitler throughout Europe and around the globe. For those who are true Christians, they must see Trump as the antiChrist, as the devil incarnate; and they would be correct.

  5. While the correlation between poverty and social capital is interesting speculation, the link between rural poverty and Trumpism is stronger.

    Rural economic decline began at the turn of the century. But the great recession along with the loss of massive numbers of manufacturing jobs, has accelerated declining populations, produced dramatically higher unemployment and under employment rates, a scarcity of resources for schools and other public services, and an increase in persistent rural poverty only slightly exceeded by inner cities.

    Eighty-Six “86 percent of persistent poverty counties have entirely rural populations. Rural communities with persistently high poverty rates are often geographically isolated, lack resources and economic opportunities, and suffer from decades of disinvestment.”


    They voted overwhelmingly for Trump because the Dems have no voice, no vision and no programs for them. Where is our Robert F. Kennedy?

  6. This country has never truly abolished slavery. While there has always been a large group of white citizens who held low-paying jobs that barely kept their heads above water, this group has grown considerably in the past twenty years.

    During this same period of time our country’s social safety nets have been relentlessly attacked and dismantled by the ruling gop party. Clinton also downgraded our social safety nets, but it has primarily taken place by gop federal and state elected representatives who have been willing to sell their souls (if they had one to start with) to the Koch brothers and all of the large wealthy corporate executives who are willing to write checks to elected officials to get what they want. The financial return on the dollars they invest in politicians has been phenominal.

  7. JoAnn, I don’t see Trump as you suggest although I like your rhetoric. I see him as an aberration, a deeply disturbed un-American egotistical, dyslectic misled Fool, a marionette to be pitied for the pain inflicted by those who pull his strings. Watch him thrust out his chin and belly in misplaced pride, watch him when he lies like a guttersnipe, watch him when he reads his teleprompter.

  8. OMG; my statement was that true Christians probably viewed Trump as antiChrist and devil incarnate.

    As the mother of a dyslexic son who suffered ridicule throughout his life, including being called “retarded” by his own father, I resent you using that medical term in relation to Trump. My son was a loving, giving, hard working child and man who taught himself to read and write when the education system in Indianapolis failed him. When he died at age 55; disabled due to 7 fractured vertebrae from and accident and terminal cancer, his home was paid for because he was a well-known brick mason throughout the Tampa Bay, Florida area and owned his business. He often gave jobs to homeless people he passed on roads after taking them for meals. While parked at a red light on the highway one evening; he saw a small businessman lay his bank deposit bag on top of his car to unlock the door then drive off and the bag slid off of the car roof. He pulled into the strip mall parking lot to retrieve the bag and early the next morning he drove to the business to return it to the owner, being a small businessman himself, he refused the offered reward money.

    Dyslexia does not turn people into hate filled, pussy grabbing, sexual abusing, thieving, lying, neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, KKK supporting monsters. This is who Trump is, was and will always be; it is his chosen nature.

  9. John Neal,

    My experience living for seven years in a rural county where poverty was the norm gave me a closer look at the causes for economic decline in those places. While manufacturing jobs did contribute to their decline, it was the loss of family farms that did such places in. The greedy and land hungry among those farmers pushed out and then bought up their neighbor’s land. Where there once were hundreds of family farms there now are only a few dozen… and they are not “family” farms. They are industrial farms comprising thousands of acres, worked by seasonal, minimum wage workers. Because the majority of families lost their source of income they left, the parents to the towns and the younger ones to a city taking with them the future and the economic base for the small towns. Wal Mart moved into the center of the county and gave the coup de grace to the local grocery, hardware and pharmacy.
    Not a problem for the now wealthy remaining farmers… they cleared out a landing field and bought planes. Shopping was better in St. Louis or Indianapolis anyway.

  10. Perhaps because of overuse many people regard Lord Acton’s famous observation connecting power and curruption as trite. I think it to be profound and almost universal. While it’s true that many who successfully grasp power do so because they are currupt to begin with it seems to be also true that the longer power is held and practiced the more corrupting it becomes.

    Democracy is what keeps the powerful humble enough to govern.

    Agent Orange was born with the power of wealth and as an adult succeeded in accumulating more through celebrity. He increased the wealth that he was given by preying on others and by building edifices around the world to celebrate hedonism which apparently modern people have his unlimited appetite for. As they failed he stuck others with his bills by declaring bankruptcy and moved on.

    He’s known no good. Never noticed it being practiced.

    He’s currupt in so many ways. One of the most prominent is that he has zero regard for truth. To him truth is weakness and lack of flexibility in accumulating power. He attracts others like him to whom life is a game to be played scored only by how much of other people’s wealth you can gain control over.

    He is who he always has been but increasingly currupted by the power that what he was born into has multiplied. He’s only a problem because he models bad behavior, currupt behavior, power.

    As he has successfully multiplied the power of wealth that he was given into political power he has become a threat to everything that our country was as a model for the world of ethical behavior. We are losing our brand, our reputation, our first place in the regard of the world and becoming the North Korea of the west. The rest of the world is startled that we are not apparently what we seemed to be, we are the opposite. We are Donald Trump.

    We have to rely on our democracy to correct this terrible wrong. We can perhaps, at least we have one chance to this November. If we can lay siege to the Exectutive by our representation in the Legislative Branch we still have a chance to recover what was so essential to our lives that we lost so suddenly and completely.

    That of course will be nowhere near the end. It’s barely the beginning of recovery but it’s what we can and must do to start to recover.

  11. Todd,

    Well said and correct on all points. In my recent book, “Racing to the Brink: The End Game for Race and Capitalism”, those points are developed through historical analysis. Everyone should read it, and ask, “Why is capitalism still in existence in our country”.

    The Democratic Socialism of Scandinavia and Canada is not perfect, but in terms of social capital, these countries have moved ahead of us for the betterment of mankind. Our perverse attachment to profit and war are the key elements to our demise. Constant war destroyed Rome and with the anti-Muslim paranoia rampant in poor, rural and Republican America, it will destroy us too.

    The ouster of Trump is a good idea, of course, but removing Republicanism from our state and local governments is immediate and critical. My suggestion for today is to make sure you influence at least 5 other people to vote the bastards out who are adding to the demise of America by being “good Germans” and voting for Republicanism/Nazi-ism.

  12. Let’s wax philosophical today. Before the domestication of plants in what is now present day Iraq and the surplus thus created which gave some humans time and energy to put aside their daily pursuit of roots and berries for urbanity, studies of philosophy and science, adoptions of religion, better weapons for larger wars etc., we were all looking daily for food to the exclusion of most everything else. When I see birds on the prowl for their daily food I think of how we were once stuck with the same routine. The routine that was ended by the domestication of plants which led to the Agricultural Revolution in the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys thousands of years ago is still with us – by government edict – we keep poor and otherwise disadvantaged in the relative position of pursuing roots and berries as we all did during pre-Agricultural Revolution days. Then we had no choice; now we do, and have chosen to starve the poor, the sick and the otherwise disadvantaged. Darwin for them; the Cleveland Clinic and lung transplants for us, or as otherwise translated by Trump and rich libertarians > socialism for the rich, brutal capitalism for the poor and underrepresented, a system that has led, finally, to taking children of those seeking asylum captive in order to work out domestic political issues, while we gutlessly await the next and newest atrocity and affront to reason and morality.

    I’m beginning to think that political change and reform are not enough; that we all need to take a mandatory course in what it means to be human in living up to our democratic values. Apparently corralling the planet’s resources and distributing their value to selected humans via what we loosely call government is set to fail, but such a system could be supplanted by a system that is worse. We have had our Agricultural Revolution, a move from usafacture to a central workshop system in production, an Industrial Revolution, Gilded Ages, and are now into an Information Age and automated production. Perhaps it’s time we had a Human Revolution.


  13. Theresa Bowers,

    Agreed there was no uniform pattern to rural decline but the one you describe is quite typical. I just keep bringing it up because I want our urban colleagues to understand these people, needs and basis for their views. They are not all racists and certainly don’t consider themselves as white privileged. Nor do I think they are lacking in social capital, if I may use it a little more broadly than Sheila, to refer to norms and institutions that bind communities of people together.

    Similar to you, I have been out here with them for 5 years and it has been quite an education.


  14. As Boomer the de-industrialization of the USA happened with remarkable swiftness. As Marine Corps General Smedley Butler said during the 1930’s, “The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag”. It should come as no surprise the USA has the largest military war machine on earth, with bases all over the planet.

    We have here in America an à la carte system of social support. In restaurants, à la carte is the practice of ordering individual dishes from a menu in a restaurant, as opposed to table d’hôte, where a set menu is offered. If you re-imagine the restaurant to our society, you have the “individual dishes” as health care, day care, maternity leave, pre-school, kindergarten, higher education, sick leave, retirement benefits, long term care, hospice care, etc.

    You can have these “individual dishes” of support in the USA – If and Only If You can Afford Them, or you are stuck in grinding poverty and then you have to prove you need them. Countries like Canada and Western Europe have these “individual dishes” as a part of the partnership between the People and the State = Socialism.

    The people in the USA have been brainwashed into believing this mythological Wild West Frontier concept of individual ruggedness as a virtue and the need for support from the greater society at different points in your life as a vice. The so called Prosperity Gospel fits into this brain washing.

    The comedian George Carlin listed the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. Politically here in the USA, Socialism is a dirty word you cannot support, since there is the magic formula of the right wing: Left=Liberal=Socialist=Communist=Lenin=Stalin=Mao=Castro. Socialism is magically transformed into the totalitarian Communism.

  15. Having read the comments up until now I am struck by how many are so well thought out and worthwhile. This is one of the occasions when the commenters have improved on Sheila’s writing and I salute you all.

  16. ML,

    And with the election of Republicans everywhere and Donald Trump in Washington, we’ve seen free-market democracy magically transformed into totalitarian fascism. Amazing how that happens, isn’t it?

  17. being i grew up in inner city newark ,n.j. may i have this moment::::as a white man…
    bumper sticker,
    white society made poverty,and white society keeps poverty for a kicking boy

  18. Crime and Punishment in Germany:

    The CEO of luxury automaker Audi has been arrested in Germany as part of an investigation into emissions cheating. Munich prosecutors said Monday that Rupert Stadler, who has worked for Audi parent company Volkswagen since 1990, had been detained because of concerns he could influence witnesses in an ongoing fraud investigation.

    Stadler, 55, is the highest ranking Volkswagen executive to be arrested in connection to a costly diesel emissions scandal that burst into public view in 2015.

    Prosecutors said they have opened a criminal investigation into potential fraud by 20 current or former Audi employees including Stadler. The case is related to suspected emissions cheating in 240,000 diesel cars sold in the United States and Europe.

    The arrest comes just days after Germany imposed a €1 billion ($1.2 billion) penalty on Volkswagen (VLKAY) for rigging diesel engine emissions worldwide.

    Volkswagen has admitted that it rigged millions of diesel engines to cheat on emissions tests.

    Diesel cars from Volkswagen and its Audi subsidiary cheated on clean air rules with software that made emissions look less toxic than they actually were. http://money.cnn.com/2018/06/18/investing/audi-ceo-arrested-volkswagen-rupert-stadler/index.html

    A remarkable difference in judicial attitude from the USA. It was AG Eric Holder who essentially said – Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Jail. Wells Fargo commits massive fraud and there is always a Get out of Jail Card to be played, by the upper echelon. The vampires of big financial institutions here in the USA are immune from criminal prosecution.

    It is no wonder to me that the proles have lost faith in the system. A system including our McMega-Media that tries to hang everything on the one “Bad Apple” rather than seeing a corrupt -Steroid Capitalist system.

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