Lee: We benefit from having social capital

Written by Derek Monson

August 19, 2022

In a recent Sutherland Institute Congressional Series event, Sen. Mike Lee discussed the importance and impact of social capital, which he defined as “the extent of your interaction with and access to others … your interactions with friends, neighbors, community organizations, charitable foundations, churches, synagogues, mosques and things like that.” As part of his work on Congress’s Joint Economic Committee (JEC), Lee said:

We’ve been studying the ramifications of what we call social capital – social connectedness. We’ve done research papers on deaths of despair, suicidality, drug abuse, addiction, homelessness, poverty, educational attainment, educational success in children, and income inequality, upward economic mobility … through the lens of social capital. In other words, we do all these studies to try to figure out how people are affected by the degrees to which they are connected to others. … On every metric that we’ve been able to conceive of, we found that people benefit to the precise degree that they have social capital.

These comments about social capital highlight the importance and personal value of our active participation in strong and healthy civic institutions. Those institutions include many of the groups in whose social interactions we generate social capital: community organizations, charitable foundations and organized religion, just to name a few.

In a recent blog post about social capital and civic institutions, I wrote:

While institutions and social capital are not synonymous, they have a strong connection to each other. Social capital measures the strength of interpersonal connections and networks between people. Civic institutions that tend to thrive in Utah, on the other hand – family, church, neighborhood organizations, etc. – create strong interpersonal connections and networks for their members. In other words, Utah’s strong civic institutions are among the strongest incubators, so to speak, of its nation-leading social capital.

That process of healthy civic institutions generating high levels of social capital has helped inoculate Utah, in many ways, against political narratives of resentment and alienation that have taken deep hold in other areas of the nation.

The research of the JEC bolsters the conclusion that the social capital created by a person’s active participation in civic institutions generates tremendous benefit not only for society as a whole – by helping to heal our partisan and political divisions – but for individuals as well. Who doesn’t want a better chance to have a longer life, a better education (for yourself and your children), or more income? Those are the things that social capital creates, and social capital is exactly what active membership in healthy civic institutions produces.

How do we improve our lot in life or the lives of those we love? How do we have a beneficial impact on our toxic political rhetoric? Based on social capital research, you can at least start by participating in a community organization, volunteering for a charitable foundation, or joining an organized religion.

It may not seem readily apparent at first why that will help. But solutions to difficult problems are not always fully intuitive. As we participate in these civic institutions, we join networks of relationships and associations (i.e., build social capital) that open doors for education and employment and that expand our perspectives by creating new friendships with people who think differently than us or who have different life experiences. Remember that the next time you get recruited to join a community organization whose mission and goals could align with your desires and values.

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