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.