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  • "Both government policy and markets matter. But we expect too much when we look to them for answers to what are—at their heart—relational problems dependent on social structures and norms." Tweet This
  • "Despite consistently emphasizing the importance of social ties—particularly marriage—few churches currently have a coherent strategy for strengthening those ties among members." Tweet This
  • "Strong social habitats foster strong families, networks, and institutions locally as well as the connections to people and sources of influence across other parts of society." Tweet This
Category: Interview

As a leading expert on fragile states, Seth Kaplan has worked in dozens of countries as a consultant to organizations like the World Bank and U.S. State Department “on the front line of efforts to prevent violent conflict and government collapse in some of the most fragile states on the planet.” And yet he writes that nowhere else in the world has he seen the level of social decay that he sees in America today. 

His concern led him to write a new book, Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time, which is not only informed by his professional experience but also a childhood marked by divorce and bullying, and the Orthodox Jewish community to which he now belongs in Kemp Mill, Maryland. At the heart of the book is the idea that rather than top-down or bottom-up, what is called for is a sideways approach—“approaching social problems not one by one but place by place." 

In this season of being especially embedded in place as I spend my time raising young children, I personally appreciated his reminder that the ordinary—walking with my children to the playground and visiting with neighbors along the way, volunteering at church—is not frivolous, but a form of “social repair work” much needed today. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Amber Lapp: Your new book emphasizes the importance of thinking structurally about the social habitats in which we live. What is a social habitat, and why does it matter so much?

Seth Kaplan: Social habitats are the social environment or ecosystem in which we live—including and reflecting the institutions and norms in which we are embedded. Each neighborhood has a unique social habitat that greatly influences the way people treat each other and behave, influencing everything from how safe a place is, how likely neighbors are to support each other, what kind of influences young people receive, whether people come together to tackle common problems, and whether residents can influence government to deliver the services they need and desire. Social habitats are especially important for those in their formative years—infants and children.

Strong social habitats foster strong families, networks, and institutions locally as well as the connections to people and sources of influence across other parts of society. They encourage cooperation, trust, and mutual support among residents and businesses; nurture a sense of security, belonging, and meaning; promote skills and norms that help residents thrive in the broader society; and attract investment and different types of residents (e.g., different socioeconomic status and stages in life). Fragile neighborhoods, in contrast, do the reverse, making it harder to sustain a family and raise children. Residents in fragile neighborhoods exhibit stress, mistrust, frustration, and a sense of insecurity. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “An unsuccessful neighborhood is a place that is overwhelmed by its defects and problems and is progressively more helpless before them.”

Lapp: Some might assume that you are saying that neither politics nor the market matters. I read you to be saying something more nuanced. For example, you write, “Whereas the Left’s profligate spending on social programs and emphasis on individual autonomy weaken the social structures and norms that used to support healthy neighborhoods, the right’s emphasis on market solutions above all else is simply a different flavor of individualism—the same mentality that has wreaked havoc on our social fabric.”

What do you see as the role of government in supporting social structures? What about markets?

Kaplan: First, let me be clear: both government policy and markets matter. But we expect too much of them when we look to them for answers to what are—at their heart—relational problems dependent on social structures and norms. Government and markets influence these [problems], but they are only a part of a much larger story. Another way to say this might be: Policy plays a role but politics is not the answer. The exchange of goods and services plays a role but the things people need most are things money cannot buy. (We all know this!)

When it comes to government, we are quick to consider how its policies affect us materially. What if we gave equal weight to how government structures society? Government can best support social structures by shaping the physical and institutional landscape in ways that nurture them. For example, we could re-envision the landscape around clearly demarcated neighborhoods, with a renewed emphasis on bolstering in-person exchange and the development of the wealth of “organizational life.” In an urban setting, for example, a neighborhood ideally should correspond to the catchment area of a primary school, include a commercial center that can provide everyday facilities and services, have clear boundaries, and contain physical assets and institutions that promote bonding and bridging social capital (e.g., parks, libraries, public transit, community organizations, houses of worship, cafés, and bars).

Governments could also delegate more authority and funding to the smallest and most local levels of government—think municipal bodies or neighborhood-focused teams rather than state or federal (or large city) sector-specific administrative organs. This principle of social organization is known as subsidiarity. Then they could evaluate efforts neighborhood by neighborhood based on the metrics that matter, rather than by the number of subsidies dished out, permits issued, roads completed, or boxes checked, as is typically the case today. 

As for markets, it’s important to remember that while markets are a hugely constructive force that brings net economic gains for the country as a whole, there will always be winners and losers, and even losses that seem small on a national scale can be catastrophic for distressed neighborhoods and those living there. Charles Marohn writes, “economic strength is built from the bottom and works its way up, like a foundation supporting a structure.” If that’s true, then public and private organizations could invest much more in initiatives that bolster local wealth creation, helping to spur change from within and making markets more helpful to revitalization. For example, Jumpstart Germantown in Philadelphia creates opportunities for locals to invest in their own neighborhoods by offering training, mentoring, and access to networks and capital (i.e. loans) to aspiring real estate developers seeking to rehabilitate local properties, while building wealth in the process. When it’s kept local, this wealth can create demand for other social and economic improvements that serve all residents instead of just some.

"Strong social habitats foster strong families, networks, and institutions locally as well as the connections to people and sources of influence across other parts of society."

Lapp: You have a chapter on the nonprofit Communio, in which you make the point that when it comes to marriage, churches are institutions that are pro-marriage in their mission, yet on the whole do little systematically to support marriage beyond pro-marriage rhetoric. If you were speaking to a pastor interested in strengthening marriage, what advice would you give?  

Kaplan: First, I would ask them to consider how their mission extends beyond this one issue. For many American Christians, faith is today more like a consumer product than a way of life. This is a very thin understanding, and dramatically different than it was in the past. Faith-based networks operate more as “functional assists” for a particular need or given phase of life than as an entity working towards building a devout—and local—community. As Tim Carney writes in Alienated America, “The only way to maintain ‘real and sincere closeness’ with a person is to entangle ourselves with that person through the bonds of an institution—to live in community and to work toward common ends with that person.” The more the church is grounded in building strong place-based community—and the thick web of relationships that make it up—the more likely it will have an impact on marriage and families.

Second, I’d encourage a pastor to lead a flock that is intentionally countercultural, seeking not to blend in with American mainstream culture, but offering an alternative—one based on thick relationships and social structures and a different vision of what flourishing means. Many American churches are bold about holding countercultural beliefs but much less bold about fostering countercultural practices. A good weekly sermon may drive a Christian to church, but it may not sustain them within the Christian faith from Monday through Saturday. Churches are uniquely positioned to offer a “sustaining” alternative because of their role—or potential role—in creating community and a sense of belonging around their values and norms. They not only instill a cultural and moral framework, they also provide access to mentors, role models, and informal support networks, as well as activities and resources (e.g., movie nights, childcare) that strengthen family ties in one form or another. 

Lastly, I would, of course, make strengthening marriage a higher priority and proactively learn from those doing good work in the field. Despite consistently emphasizing the importance of social ties—particularly marriage—few churches currently have a coherent strategy for strengthening those ties among members. And for those who make an effort to strengthen marriage, too often their approach is scattershot, with a limited understanding of what works or doesn’t and short-term timeframes. Churches don’t need to reinvent the wheel; they can learn from each other about what kinds of marriage initiatives have lasting results.

Lapp: You’ve mentioned before that there is a gap between the way policymakers and academics are trained to approach problems, and the way people on the ground doing the work see things. Is there a way for these approaches to become complementary instead of in conflict? In other words, how might these groups—let’s call them elites and locals—work together to address America’s social crisis more effectively? 

Kaplan: I don’t think they are necessarily in conflict as much as they speak different languages to different audiences and don’t readily translate to one another. Part of the problem is that policymakers and academics are too focused on the role of government and policy—a vertical mindset—leading to debates centered around the level of government spending, numbers of material units supplied, and incentives facing individuals. These matter, but much less than the chattering classes think. People on the ground tend to think more horizontally, valuing the importance of relationships, networks, social institutions, local leaders, influence, and community assets (whether cultural, built, natural, economic, or educational).

Two generations ago mostly everyone was tied to a given place, where their families had settled for several generations. Careers—and wealth—were built through allegiance to a particular place, and thus carried various obligations. Today, we have more national nonprofit organizations than ever, but fewer ways to bring people together across various divides or to effect change in our own neighborhoods and communities. Elites have succeeded materially by minimizing the loyalty they have to any particular place or institution—as the journalist Grace Olmstead puts it in her book, Uprooted, they follow the “siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.” Their networks tend to be more national and based on education and corporations. But most Americans still depend on their neighborhood and its institutions.

"Both government policy and markets matter. But we expect too much of them when we look to them for answers to what are—at their heart—relational problems dependent on social structures and norms."

These differences can be bridged with an embedded approach to government spending and programs. Instead of hiring people with sector-specific expertise and shuttling them from project to project, place-based teams should be established and evaluated on how well neighborhoods do. These teams could be made up of generalists with a wide range of skills who could commit to a particular geography for an extended period of time, developing place-specific expertise in the process. Public servants—who would have intimate knowledge of streets and businesses and residents in their specific places—would see their roles as facilitators rather than deciders, and accountability would flow bottom up rather than top down. This is similar to what works in fragile settings in other countries, where I often recommend decentralized models of governance because it empowers marginalized groups with a sense of ownership and forces the state to respond to the needs of the broader population rather than just the elites in the capital.

Lapp: I’ll end with something personal. Recently a family on my street—mom, dad, four-year-old girl and a baby—was delinquent on property tax payments and became homeless. I keep wondering—if our neighborhood were more connected, would this have happened? I’d walk down to visit, or to take food or Tylenol for the baby when he was teething, and little things like that. Other neighbors saw this and started asking me if there were ways they could help. The people on our street are good people! By that time, though, the property had already been auctioned off. I share this story because I’m curious—in your vision of neighbors who are enacting a vision that is “local, concrete, personal, and easy to rally around,” how might this story play out differently?

Kaplan: It’s fitting to end with a story. You’re showing readers and listeners how this hits home for every one of us. In this case, I would ask about institutions—formal and informal—that could help a family like this in need. Is there a local nonprofit that they could turn to? Are there neighbors, informal groups, houses of worship, schools, or civic leaders they could seek out? Are there places offering small loans or assistance getting a job? Does anyone have influence with the government agencies involved—could something have been negotiated? Too often, we respond to problems after the fact rather than working to develop the social supports that can prevent such problems from occuring in the first place. As Brookings Institution scholars Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill write, we focus on “providing ambulances at the bottom of a cliff, rather than building fences at the top. It’s far better to act early,” and strengthen the institutions that support people, rather than waiting to address the fallout when they weaken.

On a deeper level, what is the thickness of relationships and level of intimacy between neighbors? Was the the family comfortable enough to share the extent of their challenges before it was too late? Letting another person know we are in difficult enough straits to need help may feel like too great a risk to take in our individualistic society, where “thou shall not burden others” is an unspoken commandment. We prize our ability to work through our own issues and figure things out for ourselves. 

In my neighborhood, in contrast, there is an abundance of institutions and relationships for those in need. Local organizations are readily available to help with situations like this, and community leaders regularly recommend people to seek out help when it appears the need is spiking (such as when the government shuts down and some people may see paychecks delayed). We are also more open about our problems, showing our vulnerability because of the higher levels of trust. While my family has never had a crisis such as the one you describe, we have faced other challenges. These were more manageable both because more people were available to help and because we ourselves learned from the experiences of others. This is what a healthy social habitat looks like, and it’s something I believe every American can help foster, right where they are.