Employment solutions: Can a town’s good deeds lower unemployment?
The dollars and cents of good deeds: Communities with high social capital tend to have lower unemployment. Some seeking employment solutions see this altruistic glue as something to study.
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"It's very much built around the local economy and the local workforce," says Aaron Cooper, the ISDA's economic development director. He says even though there are few formal jobs in Ajo, there is a lot of demand for the manual skills the trainees are learning. "That is the most innovative part of our program – that not only are we trying to get a job done with local labor, but we're trying to connect people who are interested in working with those who can probably help employ them."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The altruistic glue holding a community together
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If it succeeds, the Ajo project could be a grass-roots model for economic development and revitalization that's an alternative to the usual pattern of brain drain and community decline.
At the NCoC, Smith says people who have a connection to their community also have a stake in its success and a willingness to solve its problems. He says this "social capital" is as important to a community's economic recovery as a financial investment from government or business – and that no financial investment can succeed without it.
"For the financial capital to hold and make a difference in communities," he says, "you need to have human capital existing within those communities, to receive that financial capital and make it work. And as soon as you have that, when you invest the financial capital, you'll see greater returns. You'll see more jobs created and staying within those communities."
Smith and his researchers are careful to say that civic engagement alone won't create jobs. But because the connection is so strong, the NCoC has embarked on a joint study with the Knight Foundation to explore exactly how crucial civic health and community attachment are to economic prosperity.
The lost letter ruse
Other research supports this line of inquiry.
Robert Sampson, a Harvard University sociologist, spent 15 years studying all the neighborhoods in Chicago. His book, "Great American City," was published in January. Using the US Census, housing data, and community surveys, Professor Sampson looked at the social conditions that either strengthen or weaken local altruism. He found large differences between neighborhoods, and patterns that have persisted through the recession.
In one field experiment, his researchers randomly scattered thousands of letters with fake names throughout Chicago's neighborhoods, and then calculated the rate at which people picked them up and mailed them. The rate was anywhere from none returned to 82 percent returned, depending on the neighborhood. And the rate of return corresponded to other factors that reflected each neighborhood's social "climate."
It's not just wealth or poverty that determines a neighborhood's climate, Sampson found, though that plays a role. Another crucial factor is how many organizations there are. It doesn't matter if it's a nonprofit group or a basketball league, a church or a barbershop, as long as there's a way for local people to gather.
Take the neighborhood of Oakland. It's one of the poorest areas in Chicago, but it also has one of the highest ratios of community organizations. Oakland's poverty rate has actually dropped since 2000, and its home foreclosure rate is about average for Chicago – much better outcomes than in the city's other poor neighborhoods.
Sampson cautions that a lot of different factors can determine a community's condition, including gentrification. But aside from that, he says, Oakland represents a larger pattern. When citizens join groups, they can't help but talk, he explains. "They tell people about other activities, and they end up getting networks and joining associations that they otherwise wouldn't. They're not setting out to say, 'Our purpose is to build identity.' But it's an organic process that often happens."
That process can't solve the global economic crisis, he adds, but it can ease the pain.