Social Capital – Health & Economic Benefits of Connecting While Distancing
During COVID-19, social capital is proving to be a necessary ingredient for positive health and economic outcomes.
Social Capital: The Connections that Lead to Positive Health and Economic Outcomes (Even) During a Time of Social Distancing
Forming relationships is a fundamental part of being human. Our relationships create a support structure that provides opportunities for growth and fosters improved circumstances. This is the infrastructure for social capital – the connections, networks, and relationships among people, and the value they provide – which can be used by executive directors, managers, and frontline practitioners in human services programs.
Many human services programs see relationships and social networks – along with other assets such as funding or buildings – as resources to be nurtured, developed, and implemented to help improve the health, well-being, and economic circumstances of our communities. This thinking is supported by research indicating that, the more we connect with others, the more we trust them. These connections also help us work together more effectively to reach shared goals. 
Using Social Capital to Improve Health Outcomes
Research consistently shows important benefits related to social capital, such as individuals with higher levels of social capital being happier and finding better jobs. We also see that people report better health and increased levels of trust in a community as a result of their positive relationships. Completing the circle, healthier communities often also report higher levels of social capital. Already, there are studies demonstrating:
- Robust bonding capital between physically distant family and community members may help insulate high-risk individuals from negative effects of isolation if they can draw from those pre-existing social networks. This means that building community – even if it’s virtual or physically distant – can minimize potential adverse mental health responses to isolation.
- Initiatives that aim to build social capital by fostering enhanced solidarity and empathy between high-risk and low-risk groups are particularly important to the COVID-19 response. A recent set of studies investigating the role of empathy in physical distancing and mask-wearing compliance found that public motivation to adhere to these preventative public health measures increases when empathy for those most vulnerable to COVID-19 is elicited.
- Looking ahead to the future delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine, an emphasis on the collective remains imperative. Policies that deliberately seek to build bridging capital between high-risk and low-risk groups may serve as effective tools to combat vaccine hesitancy by enabling members of the general population to recognize that their personal immunization decisions directly affect the safety of those in their communities who are unable to be vaccinated (ex. due to allergic intolerances).
- The dissemination of transparent and accurate public health information, enforcing expectations of public health policy compliance among political leaders, policy consistency between domestic agencies and departments, and policy congruency with recognized international health organizations, stand as actionable social capital-centric options that may enhance public faith in the legitimacy of national COVID-19 responses.
Using Social Capital to Improve Economic Recovery Outcomes
Research also connects social capital to the economic well-being of communities. Social capital networks help people access resources that protect against economic hardship. Workers who use social networks to search for jobs found positions with higher wages compared to those who didn’t. Likewise, activities that build social capital may help low-income young adults aged 16-24 who are disconnected from education or the labor force acquire networks and skills that can lead to meaningful career pathways. Building social networks for low-income individuals can increase connections to institutions, such as those in higher education, that are essential for upward economic mobility. Together, these individual benefits can strengthen communities over the long term.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected small businesses. Researchers note that social capital may be the ingredient that helps many to survive.
- Successful small businesses tend to be those that participate in entrepreneurial networks and build relationships with the community members where they operate.
- Research focused on small businesses recovery during a crisis has shown that community-based networks are essential because they actively mobilize social capital and help entrepreneurs be more resilient. When structured correctly, disaster responses to small businesses can help preserve firm-level entrepreneurial social capital networks. This is important because research shows these networks are critical for long-term small business success. For example, if disaster loans and grants incentivize small businesses to retain their payrolls, they will be better able to resume normal activities when the emergency has passed. But business closures – especially when prolonged – can cause these relationships to become more fragile.
- Both community institutions and governments benefit from leveraging each other’s social capital networks, especially when crafting disaster responses. For governments, community institutions with relationships with entrepreneurs can help quickly deploy loans and grants in an efficient and effective manner. For community institutions, government partners can supply financial resources to support small business owners in ways that would not otherwise be possible.
Social capital is not new, but it is certainly proving its value during the social distancing phase of this pandemic. We encourage you to learn how to implement emerging social capital practices from the following resources.
This handbook provides insight on the general benefits of social capital and specific principles and practices undergirding its use.
These podcasts provide more insight into how human services programs have successfully utilized social capital.
 Wong, A.S., Kohler, J.C. Social capital and public health: responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Global Health 16, 88 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-020-00615-x
McCall, Jamie and Teshanee Williams. 2020. “Social Capital in the Era of Social Distancing: Community Development Responses to COVID-19.” Carolina Small Business Development Fund. Raleigh, NC. https://doi.org/10.46712/covid19.social.capital