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  • Struggling cities and small towns are suffering from more than the abandonment of material capital. Tweet This
  • The loss of social capital means the loss of communal safety nets, connections to jobs, and more. Tweet This

In a recent column, Ross Douthat reflected on LeBron James’ move back to Cleveland and more generally on “the trajectory of our nation’s most talented citizens, who since the 1970s have been clustering ever more densely in certain favored cities, and gradually abandoning the places in between.” In a response at Demos, Matt Bruenig critiqued Douthat’s column, arguing that “The problems of places like Ohio have not been caused by the abandonment of the professional class, but by the ruthless abandonment of capital.”

What Bruenig misses is that struggling cities and small towns in the middle of the country are suffering from more than the abandonment of material capital. Human capital and social capital also matter a great deal, which is the point that Douthat is making, and a point also documented in Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. While Carr and Kefalas are writing about rural Iowa, the principle holds: when the social script encourages the “best and brightest” to leave home and head for either coast, those leaving sometimes unwittingly contribute to the decline of their hometowns.

And as Douthat explains, “Elite self-segregation, and what Charles Murray has dubbed the ‘coming apart’ of the professional and working classes, has also contributed to America’s growing social problems—hardening lines of class and culture, adding layers of misunderstanding and mistrust to an already polarized polity, and leaching brains and social capital from communities that need them most.”

We’ve seen this in Maytown, the southwestern Ohio town where we interviewed young adults for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project. Old-timers describe how the doctor used to live next door to the Ford factory worker, or how a wealthy businessman in the neighborhood would buy the new fire truck that the Maytown Fire Department needed. One woman described how when her young husband and father of three became seriously ill, she couldn’t afford the grocery bills. That’s okay, the local grocer told her, get what you need and pay me back when you can. “Neighbors don’t neighbor like they used to,” she said.

'Neighbors don't neighbor like they used to.'

But no wonder: today, Maytown is separated into hill and valley. They share the same zip code, but they are two very different worlds. On the hill are mostly college-educated people, and in the valley mostly working-class residents. The local grocers are no more, bowing to the relatively anonymous chain stores on the hill. It’s simple: when the grocer is no longer your neighbor, he no longer neighbors. The people on the hill tend to suspect the worst about the “poor” people in the valley, and the people in the valley often refer to the “rich” people on the hill as stuck-up snobs. The separation leads to mutual distrust.

Moreover, many people in the valley distrust local officials. It’s a complex story, but fueling the distrust is a history of “abandonment,” as one valley resident put it. First there were all the local businesses that disappeared. Then it was the elementary school building, which had sat in the heart of the valley as far back as anyone can remember, that they moved to the hill, right next to the newly built million-dollar homes. Ditto for the village hall that residents built by themselves in the mid-twentieth century. Upon finding that the village didn’t have money to build the hall they desperately needed, the mayor rallied the people, who built it with their own volunteer work and financial contributions. Now, village officials are discussing demolishing that same building (with federal funds) and building a new one out by the retail plaza, right next to the big chain stores. Many residents in the valley are afraid that the same demolition will happen to the whole valley—that their beloved neighborhood will be wiped out and forgotten. Both hill and valley are filled with kind and generous and decent people, but that tends to get lost in the class tension.

The new migration of professionals to Maytown has brought new businesses and thus jobs, but to Bruenig’s point, most of them are low-wage jobs at restaurants and retail stores. Village officials ogle over the growth, even though in some ways the growth has done little for the working-class residents, except threaten to drive up rent. It’s not hard to find a job, but it is hard to find a job that will support a family. The loss of capital investment that Bruenig laments and the stresses of low-wage work on families are real.

But so are the stresses caused by the coming apart of the professional and working classes. William Julius Wilson has documented how the exodus of middle-class families from the inner city impoverished the “informal employment networks” of the people left behind, thus isolating those families and consolidating social capital in the new suburbs. In a similar way, the new gated communities and subdivisions on the hill leave those in the working-class valley more isolated and with less social capital. And there is the great invisible cost of hardening distrust and creeping despair.

While social capital may sound abstract, its presence or absence has serious consequences.

While social capital may sound abstract, its presence or absence has serious consequences in a community. As Harvard scholar Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone, “social networks have value” and bring with them important benefits like mutual support, cooperation, trust, and institutional effectiveness. “A well-connected individual in a poorly-connected society is not as productive as a well-connected individual in a well-connected society. And even a poorly connected individual may derive some of the spillover benefits from living in a well-connected community.”

Putnam describes two kinds of social capital: “bonding,” which is more inward-looking and exclusive—“a kind of sociological Super Glue”—and “bridging,” which is more outward-looking and inclusive (“a sociological WD-40”). In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Putnam and Lewis Feldstein explain that the latter kind of social capital is particularly important in a pluralist democracy, lest we become like “Belfast or Bosnia—segregated into mutually hostile camps.” For Maytown, a future in which hill and valley remain separated probably means that the major social problems of the valley—a scourge of heroin abuse, for instance—will go mostly unnoticed by the people on the hill. Not because the people on the hill are cold and callous, but because they’re busy with their own lives, tending their own families and parishes and friends. When we don’t mix, we don’t know any better. And when the people with the most resources (material and immaterial) don’t know any better, everyone loses.

This is why the coming apart of the professional and working classes is so troubling, and why we must be concerned about more than material capital. To be sure, finding ways to build “bridging” social capital does not have to mean moving from DC to Ohio, or back to your struggling hometown—though it could. Wherever we live, there are things to do. For starters, the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America has a helpful list of “150 things you can do to build social capital”—everything from “Organize a social gathering to welcome a new neighbor” to “Join groups … likely to lead to making new friends of different race or ethnicity, different social class or bridging across other dimensions.”

Finally, our experience in Maytown also suggests a word of caution: even if professionals do “come home,” it’s possible to slip back into the hometown version of Belmont, or McLean, or Palo Alto. The flight of the professional classes to the coasts surely matters, but so does the separation of hill and valley in places like Maytown, Ohio.