A growing consensus of experts agrees that lack of “social capital” plays a pivotal role in communities with concentrated poverty. For example, The New York Times’ David Brooks has suggested that “the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology,” while Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli has asked whether social capital could be rebuilt to change the “troubled, isolated, hopeless lives” of the poor.
Two recent best sellers use ethnographic study and statistical analysis to show how social isolation, lack of close relationships or sense of belonging, and hopelessness – i.e., the lack of social capital – plays a powerful role in decisions about risk-taking, drugs, crime, school attendance, and unplanned pregnancy. In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam gives powerful examples of the opportunity gap and lack of social capital in poor neighborhoods. In Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas detail the loneliness and distrust felt by young women, many of whom choose to have a baby to find purpose, validation, and companionship.
Building social capital in high-poverty communities is a multi-faceted and complex challenge, with structural and cultural factors. But leaders can begin with one bipartisan solution that middle- and upper-class communities already well appreciate: Extracurricular activities. These activities can help to build invaluable social capital, without which structural fixes are less effective. As part of a comprehensive approach to long-term community change, the social capital that these opportunities can help build may be as critical as child care, enrichment, and academic inspiration.
In particular, athletic and academic teams, interest-sharing clubs, and performing arts can lead to active participation, investment, and feeling of community:
- Active participation: Through the students’ active involvement and investment in the outcome, these activities provide opportunities for critical thinking, reward academic excellence, and allow students to be inspired and celebrated for their work.
- Investment: Activities with a goal, purpose, and connection to real-world applications also prompt students to become invested and to prolong their participation in an afterschool activity, making it even more effective.
- Community: Membership on athletic and academic teams can help build feelings of community and assuage the sense of despair and social isolation.
We can narrow the opportunity gap and build social capital for children in high poverty communities by complementing the current cadre of afterschool programs with the same teams and opportunities offered to their more advantaged counterparts. These programs should be available starting in early elementary school (as appropriate to the activity); they should be subsidized or free (like they used to be); and they should be offered on the school grounds immediately after or before school.
This month, Congress debates the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA), including funding to subsidize afterschool programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative. If that federal resource were exponentially increased, state and local leaders could work collaboratively to ensure these kinds of afterschool activities are available in every neighborhood, at every school, and for every student. Afterschool has bipartisan support, and according to the National PTA, support from 90 percent of American voters too. With more than $500 billion spent annually on poverty, funding and strengthening afterschool may be one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce the opportunity gap and build social capital.