Commentary: Social Capital Can Multiply the Good – or the Bad – in Small Towns

The Daily Yonder’s newest columnist, Scott Thompson, is a labor economist and former small-town mayor. He will use both sets of experiences to explore economic and social trends in rural America.

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It’s not a secret, rural America is shrinking. Generally, our towns have been getting smaller for decades and jobs are disappearing. We’re undergoing an accelerated pace of change, affecting everything from our downtowns to public education. Storefronts close, school districts consolidate, and strangers occupy the houses where we were raised. Locally available assets and resources are thinning out.

I was born in 1961 and raised in Rushville, Illinois. It’s a small town and has been getting smaller since the 1980s. To complicate matters, Rushville is in West Central Illinois. It is a region largely ignored by state and federal governments. Frustrated by a lack of public investment in transportation and infrastructure projects, the area was nicknamed “Forgotonia” by locals. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the attitude among many in Forgotonia was to secede from Illinois. Joking or not, the “us against them” attitude was pervasive. Fortunately, through the years, attitudes have moderated; whether through social change, evolution, or out of necessity. Community leaders, local organizations, and individuals in Rushville and other communities are working together to attract valuable resources. Those resources have helped to make advancements in public education, build new public libraries, upgrade roads and bridges, improve public water and wastewater systems, and save rural hospitals. Having lived in Rushville for much of my life and having served two terms as city mayor, I’ve wittnessed how social relationships have facilitated activities that are both a benefit and a detriment to my hometown. However, it wasn’t until I attended a community development conference in 2009 that I knew these social relationships were referred to as social capital.

Social capital has been described as a multiplier for other forms of capital (such as built, human, natural…). It has been characterized as “the glue” that holds a community together and whose presence can spur the type of economic growth that brings benefits to the entire community. Social capital is built and reinforced through the formation of groups and collaboration within and between organizations. It is a publicly shared resource, reliant upon mutual trust and the norms of reciprocity through personal interactions. Most often, social capital is associated with positive outcomes and it is an important resource for community improvement. Unfortunately, it may also be a resource for small groups to exert their will on those outside their social network. There are three variants of social capital: bonding, bridging, and linking.

Rushville is a closely-knit town. Its cliquishness is an indication of strong bonding social capital. Family surnames, fraternal memberships, and church affiliations mean something. However, many members of these highly bonded social groups reach out beyond their strong personal relationships. By participating in community projects with fellow community members, bridging social capital can produce meaningful outcomes. The annual Smiles Day and community homecoming celebration are excellent examples of how townspeople engaging in bridging social capital can produce a 100-year-old community tradition. Smiles Day is celebrated in a newly redeveloped downtown. The engineering and funding of the project would not have been possible without the relationships built between the community and external partners who provided technical and financial resources.

By training, I’m a rural sociologist. My master’s degree is in community development and my PhD work is in in rural sociology at Iowa State University. By trade I’m a labor market economist with Iowa Workforce Development. I collect wage and occupational data, and occasionally I try to make use of it by conducting research and reporting the findings. At the Daily Yonder I will take an applied approach to data and results. By operationalizing the data, the results can be explained in practical terms and shared with a broad audience.

Social capital isn’t my only interest. Being actively engaged in politics, Iowa presents a unique opportunity to observe social and political behaviors. In the current election cycle, eyes are focused on rural Iowa and the Iowa Caucuses. Rural Iowa supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2106. This coming election cycle may be the most consequential since the post World War II era and it begins in Iowa.

I’m looking forward to contributing to the Daily Yonder.

Scott Thompson is a labor market economist who lives in Iowa. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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