Monday numbers: A closer look at social capital

By: - August 15, 2022 6:00 am

Images: Opportunity Insights/Social Capital Atlas

For years it’s been clear one of the keys to economic and social success and even health outcomes in America is the old real estate mantra: location, location, location.

Studies have long shown children raised in areas with higher incomes, better-funded schools and less violence are more likely to be successful adults. This month a new study  published in the journal Nature uses data from tens of billions of Facebook connections to examine three factors that seem to be drivers of that success — economic connectedness, cohesiveness and civic engagement.

Economic connectedness measures the share of people with below median incomes who are friends with people of above median incomes in a certain area. The study’s authors found connectedness is most often determined by a combination of exposure — how often higher and lower income people mix in a given community — and “friending bias,” or the likelihood those lower income and higher income people form friendships.

In other words, it really is who you know.

But it also appears to be who your friends know.

Cohesiveness, another driver discussed in the study, is a measure of the clustering of friendships or the rate with which two friends of a person are, in turn, friends with one other.

Civic engagement, another factor examined by the study, is  the measure of trust or engagement with civic organizations, including volunteering time toward groups or causes in a community.

Together, the study’s authors refer to these three factors as “social capital” — and as a companion to the study, you can now explore the online Social Capital Atlas. The interactive tool allows users to examine these three factors for every county, zip code, high school and college in the United States.

In just a few minutes I examined the differences between the Carteret County zip code where I was born (economic connectedness — 39%), the high school I attended in Bristol, Connecticut (economic connectedness — 70%), and my college alma mater, UNC-Greensboro (economic connectedness — 66%).

Not a shock, as the study broadly found “economic connectedness is generally lowest in the Southeast, the Southwest and industrial cities in the Midwest. It is highest in the rural Midwest and on the East Coast.”

The study — and the online atlas tool — have their weaknesses. The data is limited to what can be gleaned from Facebook accounts and what people choose to share there. In some of the nation’s poorest areas — and some of the poorest in North Carolina — it shows “No data due to insufficient data.” Those areas, with far less access to high speed Internet connections, good computers and mobile phones, have far fewer people engaging with social media networks.

This week, a by-the-numbers look at the new social capital study, the data driving it and what it means for some areas and institutions in North Carolina.

72 million – number of people in the U.S. from ages 25 to 44 whose Facebook data was analyzed for the study — that age range was chosen because it has the highest Facebook usage rate

84 – percentage of Americans in that age demographic that number represents

21 billion – number of Facebook friendship connections the study was able to examine among those people

70% –rate of friendship with higher-income people among children who themselves come from higher-income families

20 – percentage increase in the future incomes for lower-wealth children raised in communities where at least 70% of their friends were higher income — that’s a higher impact than traditionally well-understood factors like race, school quality or family structure

57 – percentage of friends of low-income people who have high incomes in the 28207 zip code, the Charlotte area — that’s considered “high” economic connectedness by the standards of the study

323,223 – median income for this zip code in 2020 according to Census data (one of the highest in the state)

Images: Opportunity Insights/Social Capital Atlas

The area exhibits low cohesiveness or “clustering.” Only 8.6% of peoples’ friends are also friends with each other, according to the atlas.

The Social Capital Atlas also shows low civic engagement, with only 5.6% of people participating in volunteer groups.

79 – percentage of friends of low income people who have high incomes at N.C. State University, the largest university in the UNC System

Images: Opportunity Insights/Social Capital Atlas

The Atlas shows the school with low cohesiveness or “clustering,” with 17.5% of peoples’ friends also friends with one other.

The atlas shows 6.5% of people participating in volunteer groups.

84 – percentage of friends of low income people who have high incomes at UNC-Chapel Hill

Images: Opportunity Insights/Social Capital Atlas

The Atlas shows UNC-Chapel Hill also has a low cohesiveness or “clustering” rate, about the same as N.C. State’s at 17.4.

Civic engagement showed 9% of people engaged in volunteer groups.

55 – percentage of friends of low income people who have high incomes at N.C. A&T State University, the largest of the nation’s public historically black colleges and universities

Images: Opportunity Insights/Social Capital Atlas

The atlas shows higher cohesiveness or “clustering” than at either UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State, with 20% of peoples’ friends also friends with one other.

Civic engagement was lower, however, with 4% of people participating in volunteering groups.

Those numbers were all higher at Bennett College, a small private HBCU for women in Greensboro that has struggled to stay open in recent years. Data showed 61% economic connectedness, 53% cohesiveness and 8.6% in civic engagement.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.