Social Capital and the Neighborhood Exchange

It’s been a while since I’ve raved about the joys of social capital. For those who haven’t been exposed to the concept, social capital is the mutual goodwill generated whenever you volunteer at a soup kitchen, help your neighbor move a piano, have your Sunday School class over for a barbecue, or join a softball league. Any time you participate in your community, you’re generating social capital, both for yourself and for the other people involved.

People with lots of social capital can find help when they need it; those with little social capital can spend a lot of time frustrated and alone.

When I hear folks complain that they can’t get anyone to help them with a move or a chore, I think to myself that, for whatever reason, they’ve burned through all of their social capital. Maybe they have negative attitudes, maybe they never help anybody else, maybe they ask for help too often. Or maybe they’re new to an area and haven’t had time to build relationships and goodwill with the people around them. Whatever the case, their social-capital accounts are empty.

On the other hand, I also see folks an the other end of the spectrum. Any time these people need help, their friends, family, and neighbors are there to help. Why? Because through their actions, they’ve accumulated an enormous store of goodwill. Others are willing to help them because, in the past, they’ve helped others. In short, they have a vast reserve of social capital.

Most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes. For myself, I try to help others when I can — but I don’t do it as often as I could. Becca moved from L.A. to Portland this week, for instance, and needed help unloading stuff into her new apartment. I was free, so I helped. But there have been other times I haven’t helped a friend or acquaintance. As a result, I don’t have a huge reserve of social capital but, like most people, I do have some.

As I’ve mentioned from the start of this site, one reason Kris and I love our neighborhood is that the folks around us instinctively understand the idea of social capital. We don’t intrude into each other’s lives, but we do look out for each other, and we try to lend support.

What do I mean? Let me give some examples.

From the day we moved in, Tom and Roberta next door have shared their resources and advice. They told us about the history of our house. They gave us some 25-year-old blueberry plants and some grape cuttings. They let us pick their apples and pears. Tom gave me his old darkroom equipment.

In return, we helped them with chores now and then. Kris baked them bread and cookies and shared her canned goods. When Tom died last winter, you can bet we attended his funeral. Now that Roberta is alone, we help her when she asks.

Speaking of which, the renter next door often helps Roberta. Chris is a young man who is out of work. In between looking for jobs, he goes across the street to prune hedges and mow the lawn and do small repairs.

Because I’m increasingly frustrated with the amount of time I spend in our yard, and because I want more time to write (a task that helps me earn money), I’ve been looking to hire somebody to do yardwork. (This was a GRS reader idea, for which I thank you all.) It seems like a natural choice to hire Chris to pull the morning glory and remove the ancient laurels.

So, that’s what we’ve done — at least on a trial basis. He’s outside right now preparing to prune some of our large shrubs. I’m inside writing. It’s probably an economic wash, but I’m doing something I like instead of something I dread.

Meanwhile, the network of social capital goes on. Last fall, I loaned my chainsaw to another neighbor. Upon its return, it got placed beneath a leak in the roof. As a result, the chainsaw case was filled with water. No worries. Chris knows how to work with small engines, so he’s pulled the chainsaw apart and is drying it out. (This is something far beyond my ken.)

“Do you have a small gas can that we can use to mix the chainsaw fuel?” he asked just now.

“No,” I said, “but I’ll bet John does.”

John is my real millionaire next door. He’s a retired shop teacher who spends his summers on a boat in Alaska. He’s given me free rein over his property while he’s gone, which usually just means that I borrow his orchard ladder (I &heart; his orchard ladder) and drag my yard debris back to his burn pile. But sometimes it means that I borrow his tools. So, I walked across the street to rummage through his collection of gas cans (he has many) until I found one suitable for our purposes.

In exchange, of course, I do things for John. When he’s not around, I get his mail. If his sons aren’t able, I mow his lawn. I prune his cherry tree (in exchange for cherries). When he’s home and needs help, I lend a hand.

There are other neighbors around, of course, and each is more or less involved in this neighborhood exchange. But the folks who are more involved have greater social capital. The more they’re willing to help, the more others are willing to help them.

Again, this isn’t a conscious, explicit thing. It’s just something that happens naturally. As we interact with each other in our daily lives, we remember those who help us, and we’re more willing to help them when the time comes. Sometimes there’s a dark side to social capital; this can be seen when people “keep score” (and is best typified by The Godfather). But most of the time, social capital is a good thing — a very good thing. It builds relationships and builds communities. In many ways, it’s more valuable than money.

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