Is social capital really declining?

Abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house is rescued

Dr Andrew Leigh reckons the massive drop in support for the ALP in NSW isn’t due to any inherent defect in party organisation but rather to the broader trend of declining social capital. I think he’s pulling a long bow. But the bigger question to my mind is whether social capital really is on the wane or whether it’s just taken a different form.

Writing in the Australian Financial Review this week, he argues that

people are failing to attend Labor Party meetings for the same reasons that activity is declining in most other political parties, in Rotary and the RSL, in unions and churches. Compared with two decades ago, we are less likely to know our neighbours and have fewer trusted friends.

The decline in social capital, he says, “is driven by several factors, including long working hours, car commuting and television”.

Dr Leigh is a former professor of economics at ANU and the author of Disconnected (best described as a sort of Australian version of Putnam’s Bowling Alone). He’s also the new ALP Member for the Federal seat of Fraser in the ACT, so it’s just possible that his take on the underlying ills of the ALP in NSW is a little less than objective.

I’m not convinced that all or even most of the precipitous fall in ALP membership can be sheeted home to people having less ‘spare’ time to devote to community activities or less need to ‘go out’. For example, I’ve pointed out before that car commuting doesn’t appear to be an issue – the median commute by car in a city like Melbourne is 30 minutes and half as long as the average commute by public transport. And I think there are often simpler explanations for declining civic participation e.g. changing demographics surely explain most of the decline in RSL involvement and better education the decline in church participation. A key reason we don’t know our neighbours as well as we used to is that cars have given us the geographical scope to be more discriminating about who our friends are.

But more importantly, I’m not sure that the jury’s back yet on whether social capital actually is declining. It’s true that I don’t know many people today who are active in the RSL, unions or churches, but I do know lots of people who participate in a host of other sorts of social activities that Dr Leigh doesn’t measure.

For example, virtually every woman I know above a certain age is in a book club and I know plenty of men-in-lycra who meet regularly to cycle and talk over coffee. People did these sorts of things twenty or more years ago, but they seem to be much more popular now. Many fewer women volunteer in the school tuck shop these days but that’s because many more are at work than twenty or thirty years ago. Work is in most cases a distinctly social activity where the need for trust, the scope for reciprocity and mutual reliance, and the opportunity to form deep relationships, is arguably much greater than in the tuck shop. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any activity as demanding of trust as market interactions, as Dr Leigh acknowledges in Disconnected. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s good (and bad) about greater diversity?

High-level city objectives in The Grattan Institute's 'The cities we need'

A standard objective these days in high-level city strategic plans is greater diversity. It’s mentioned, for example, in Melbourne 2030, in the Committee for Melbourne’s Beyond 5 Million and in The Grattan Institute’s The Cities We Need (see graphic).

The Grattan Institute says diversity is important because “many economists think that mixing of ethnicity, age, culture and education is important for a modern knowledge economy, in order to stimulate and disperse ideas”.

But according to Dr Andrew Leigh, it’s not necessarily all mother’s milk, at least in relation to ethnic diversity (which is what most discussion of diversity in Australia is about). In his new book on social capital, Disconnected (which I’ve discussed before), he points out that there is a negative correlation between trust and ethnic diversity:

Residents of multi-racial neighbourhoods are more likely to agree that ‘you can’t be too careful in dealing with most Australians’. In particular, neighbourhoods where many languages are spoken tend have lower levels of trust…

This accords with the findings of a succession of studies of ethnic diversity in the US and other countries. We will have to work harder, Dr Leigh suggests, if we are to make Australia both diverse and high trust.

Let me emphasise that Dr Leigh, who is the new ALP member for Fraser in the ACT and until the last election was a Professor of economics at ANU, is a supporter of immigration:

A spate of studies suggest that continued high levels of immigration will most likely bring a raft of economic and social benefits to Australia. But we should not gild the lily. Most likely, higher diversity will lead to lower levels of interpersonal trust…..the challenge for policymakers is how to maintain the current levels of  immigration while mitigating the impact on our social and political fabric.

But how do you mitigate that impact? Most city policy documents don’t even acknowledge that there might be potential downsides to ethnic diversity. Nor do they usually specify what the spatial dimension is, much less what specific policies ought to be pursued. Read the rest of this entry »

Does commuting erode social capital?

(click) John Faine interviews Pallas (ALP), Mees (Greens) and Mulder (Lib) on 774. 'Spirited' exchange between Faine and Mees at circa 29.00

In his new book, Disconnected, Dr Andrew Leigh argues that social capital, defined as the level of trust and reciprocity between people, has declined in Australia. I’m not convinced, however, that one of the culprits he fingers for this loss is guilty.

Several measures indicate social capital is on the wane – organisational membership, church attendance, political party membership, union membership, sporting participation, cultural attendance and volunteering.

Dr Leigh identifies seven key causes of this decline: long working hours, the feminisation of the workplace, television, ethnic diversity, impersonal technologies, tipping points and car commuting.

I want to look at his argument on car commuting, which I briefly alluded to once before.

He says that time spent commuting is bad for social capital because it is time not spent with family, community and friends:

Commuters are less likely to be active members of sporting clubs or community organisations. And commuting can affect family life: one in five men who works full-time spends more hours commuting than with his children

It is also negative for social capital because most commuting is done alone. Moreover, “being stuck in traffic for 45 minutes a day inevitably means a spate of small annoyances…..taken individually these are minor annoyances but as they add up, driver frustration can lead us to form an increasingly hostile view of our fellow Australians”. Read the rest of this entry »

Why does Canberra have more social capital?

Newly elected Labor member for the seat of Fraser in the ACT, Andrew Leigh, argues that Canberra has the highest level of social capital of any of Australia’s capital cities.

The former ANU economist contends that social capital – essentially the level of trust and reciprocity within communities – has declined in Australia. He points to declines in active membership of associations, in religious participation, and in membership of political parties and unions.

We even have fewer close friends now than in the 80s – we’ve two fewer friends who could keep a confidence and we’ve lost half a friend who’d help us through a hard time.

Andrew concludes that there are several plausible explanations for this decline, including people working longer hours, the feminisation of the workforce and greater ethnic diversity. In addition, more time spent watching television, using a computer and commuting means less time spent face-to-face with others.

Most of these changes also have benefits, so he cautions against trying to return to the past. We need new and innovative ways to build social capital. He argues that the place to look for how we might increase social capital is Canberra. This is where it gets really interesting. Read the rest of this entry »