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.
There are good reasons why wealthier parents are investing more than ever before on extra-curricular activities to encourage inter-personal networks and “non-cognitive” skills that help their children succeed. In particular, athletic and academic teams, interest-sharing clubs, and performing arts can lead to active participation, investment, and feeling of community.
Membership on teams can help build feelings of community and assuage the sense of despair and social isolation. Whether it’s the soccer team or the Odyssey of the Mind team, children interact informally with an adult coach who acts as a mentor, build friendships with peers, and bond over mutual interests. Consider some of the activities that encourage team-bonding and friendship building, such as tennis, basketball and swimming. Interest-sharing clubs, such as Poetry Slams, Global Writes, and Book Club can serve the same purpose.
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. Academic teams such as Science Olympiad, First Lego League, Math Olympiad, and Chess Team encourage collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking, connecting students to their interests and to each other. And because students are actively involved in pursuit of a shared goal, they are building social-emotional skills, including grit and resilience, which are the foundational “soft skills” that lead to success in adulthood.
Science Fair, for example, encourages opportunities for critical thinking, rewards academic excellence, and allows students to boost their self-esteem by presenting their findings to interested adults and peers using written, graphic, and oral communications skills. Similarly, performing arts such as band or strings, drama, or dance, provide children in high poverty communities with the same opportunity to be inspired and celebrated for their work as children in wealthier neighborhoods.
Knowing this, Putnam describes extracurricular activities as the “near-perfect tool,” a potential “magic bullet” to narrow the opportunity gap. Unfortunately, as studies show, it is these kinds of extracurricular activities that are often the least accessible to the children who need them most. If poor communities could offer more teams and goal-oriented activities, they could work even more effectively to reduce discipline problems, despondency, high drop-out rates, drug use, and teen pregnancy and improve achievement rates.
In general, we know that quality afterschool programs provide a safe environment, allowing parents to maintain employment and family stability. According to the Afterschool Alliance, research shows that afterschool activities can help students become more engaged in school, increase attendance rates, and raise academic performance. Linking interest, engagement, and achievement also creates an inspirational, connected learning environment. As such, quality afterschool programs for every at-risk or low-income child should be an integral component of comprehensive school reform.
Moreover, the social capital that these opportunities can help build may be as critical as child care, enrichment, and academic inspiration to long-term community change.
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.
Congress will soon be debating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 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 that 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.