The American Dream often comes wrapped in an ethos of prosperity, homeownership, and upward mobility. Turns out that view misses the mark. According to a recent Survey on Community and Society (SCS) conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, most Americans value freedom and family more than the size of their mortgage or the number of digits in their bank account. Likewise, when gauging the nation’s collective riches, it would seem social capital is America’s true measure of wealth.
Social capital is the benefit we bank as a result of the relationships we forge with each other. Civic engagement, social connectedness, and community involvement all contribute to social capital. What counts as engagement? Involvement with volunteer public service groups such as Rotary or Kiwanis, for one. Coaching or supporting athletic teams and groups like Little League, AYSO, or YMCA. Then there’s the local PTA, cultural or hobby organizations, homeowners association, or Veterans groups.
In his bestseller Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy P. Carney writes, “Strong communities function not only as safety nets and sources of knowledge and wisdom, but also as the grounds on which people can exercise their social and political muscle. These are where we find our purpose.”
Indeed, for most of us, our sway on national policy is limited to showing up at the voting booth every two years. We find our real sphere of influence at the local level — in our families, our churches or spiritual communities, and in our neighborhoods. The exciting news is most Americans believe they can enact positive change in their communities. According to the SCS study, 58% of respondents think they can have a big or moderate impact in making their communities a better place to live. Another 35% believe they can make a small difference for good, while only 6% believe they have no influence at all.
One faith community has had a profound impact on its city and surrounding areas. Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California was in the path of a devastating wildfire that ignited on November 8, 2018. The Woolsey Fire would burn nearly 100,000 acres of land in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, destroy over 1,600 structures, prompt the evacuation of nearly 300,000 residents (of which this author is one), and kill three people.
“I came out of that fire with a nightgown and one flip flop,” says one fire victim (see her story in the video below). In the days and weeks that followed, the Calvary family stepped in the gap for community members whose lives had been shattered by the blaze. Now, more than six months later, the church continues to provide social capital in the form of temporary housing, moving and storage, clothing, and counseling to help residents get back on their feet. Neighbors helping neighbors.
“The academic literature is clear that higher levels of social capital produce greater community stability and life satisfaction,” writes Ryan Streeter, Director of Domestic Policy Studies at AEI and one of the authors of the SCS study. “Our well-being is deeply intertwined with the quality and nature of our relationships.”
Despite the bitter division that is the hallmark of our current national political discourse, a majority of Americans remain content with life close to home. According to the SCS study, nearly three-quarters of us are satisfied with the way things are going in our communities, even though 43% do not feel the same about the country. That’s not to say there are not problems at the community level; always there is opportunity to improve. Still, a clear majority finds their neighborhood a good place to live.
“Higher levels of social capital produce greater community stability and life satisfaction”
But author Carney cautions our rancorous national politics could be stealing the spotlight away from the ties that bind us. He contends the glare of the national debate may cause “people’s affections and allegiances [to] swing away from their communities or parishes or towns or counties, and toward their political party or ideology.” In other words, an us-versus-them mentality kicks in. “National politics take people’s attention away from their communities, thus weakening communities and civil society.”
Though James and Deborah Fallows view social capital from a different position on the political spectrum than Carney, they echo his concern in their recent bestseller Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. The Fallows spent five years visiting towns throughout the U.S., meeting with hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, businesspeople, city planners, students and entrepreneurs.
Of their travels and observations, the Fallows write, “The focus in successful towns was not on insoluble national divisions but on practical problems a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was likely to be in.”
That’s not to say we should take our eye off the ball nationally. But the message seems clear. Building the wealth of social capital through civic engagement and social connectedness is a recipe for healthier, happier communities. When in pursuit of the American Dream, a local focus is a good option. Time to roll up our sleeves.