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  • The understandable drive to preserve a certain flavor of community life always involves some kind of trade-off between inclusion and exclusivity. Tweet This
  • Those in communities without a thick social fabric are left behind if a focus on “social capital” does not include positive steps to rehabilitate or catalyze the work of churches, non-profit groups, and other associations.  Tweet This

Heralded by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and a cornerstone of many attempts to reknit America’s fraying social fabric, the concept of “social capital” often calls to mind Fourth of July parades, Little League fields, and community festivals. The bonds that turn a geographic neighborhood into a community often get cemented by shared experiences or characteristics, celebrated at events like Rockland, Maine’s “Lobster Festival” or the annual “Cow Chip Throw” in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. 

We would, I think, find it un-American if these towns were to begin limiting these public celebrations to those with certain means: what would the headlines be if only those with an income over $200,000 are allowed to march in the Rockland parade this year, or tickets were rationed to only two-earner households with no kids? 

This example is admittedly frivolous. But it analogizes the very real price discrimination that well-meaning communities erect against families and households who wish to live in a community with thick social ties but who are unable to afford the price of admission. 

As I recently explored in an essay for National Affairs, the forces of social exclusion—found just as, if not more, often in progressive neighborhoods as in conservative-leaning ones—often draw on otherwise-salutary forces of community cohesion and social capital. The understandable drive to preserve a certain flavor of community life always involves some kind of trade-off between inclusion and exclusivity. 

But as writers ranging from Putnam and Charles Murray to Tim Carney have pointed out, associational life seems to have declined more among low-income and working-class groups than among the upper-middle class. As political tensions have come to define group identities and lifestyles, the benefits of what we call social capital end up becoming zero-sum. As a result, the barriers to entry to certain communities seem higher than ever. 

The most strenuous opponents of newcomers into a community aren’t necessarily immigration hawks, but the community activists that protest new development or zoning restrictions. California residents who style themselves as proud members of the #resistance are often first in line to speak against SB-50 or other measures that would increase development by allowing multi-family units or other, more affordable housing options.

School boundaries are a tool in this arsenal as well. The most dramatic home makeover on HGTV has nothing on changing school zoning in making a given residence more desirable. A recent meta-analysis found that the quality of schools is capitalized into housing prices, especially in locations with strict regulatory or geographical constraints on new development, and that those effects can have adverse consequences for housing affordability and home ownership.

For the residents of those neighborhoods, this is a feature, not a bug—not only do affluent areas generate positive externalities (like lower crime) and education perceived as higher quality, but ever-increasing house prices are a way to feather a nest egg. That benefit comes at the expense of young families or the less-well-off, unable to achieve the community life they desire at a price they can afford. 

Commentators that prescribe “social capital” as a solution to the problems facing the disadvantaged, therefore, should keep in mind that no amount of extolling community empowerment will necessarily lead to a renaissance of community bonhomie. The rise of homeowner’s associations, gated communities, and rigidly-zoned suburbs are a way of ensuring that self-selected communities can thrive. Those in communities without a thick social fabric—whether from state crowd-out of associational life, unstable economic fortunes, systemic discrimination or disinvestment, or other political or economic forces—are left behind if a focus on “social capital” does not include positive steps to rehabilitate or catalyze the work of churches, non-profit groups, and other associations that reflect a healthy community life. 

This realization is part of what is setting the agenda for the Joint Economic Committee’s (JEC) current work. After a two-year phase that sought to measure and analyze the nation’s social capital, producing descriptive reports on “deaths of despair,” lonelinessaging alone, and other topics, the next phase of the JEC’s work will focus on building out a concrete policy agenda that realizes the importance of capacitating civil society and putting together a substantive vision for policy that recognizes the importance of religious and community organizations in solving policy issues. 

No one is limiting attendance at next year’s Lobster Festival based on net worth. But the healthy social fabric of a thriving community is a public good that merits investment to ensure that the everyday benefits of community life are not reserved to those with means. Conservatives—and anyone who cares about opportunity—should take seriously the idea of building out and advancing a policy agenda oriented around making intermediary associations vital and vibrant. 

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a senior policy advisor to the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. His views are his own and do not represent those of the committee or any individual legislator.