Are we too divided a country to have any sense of collective or public interest?

A recent report by The Educational Testing Service put this question of a shared collective interest into context, and in so doing highlighted a very specific, on-the-ground example in Maine. Consider the term “capital” to mean “resources that can be directed toward any chosen objective.” Next consider three kinds of capital – financial capital, human capital and social capital.

The first is owned by people and organizations and used as they choose. The second is possessed by people and is used as they can find or create the opportunities to use it. It is the collection of knowledge, skills, attitudes, aptitudes and habits that enable an individual to make his or her way in the world. The third form of capital is the network and history of personal connections and relationships that an individual collects over the course of his or her life. If financial capital is what you have, and human capital is what you know, social capital is who you know.

By most measures, distribution of all three forms of capital has become more unequal in the U.S. over the past 30 to 40 years. In the golden age of post-World War II recovery, the middle class in the United States grew through expansion of manufacturing jobs that fueled expansion of housing, infrastructure, public education and research, increased access to health care and expanded opportunities to those long excluded by racial bigotry.

Since the late 1970s, this unique socioeconomic flowering in the U.S. – enabled primarily by our escape from much of the war’s destruction and the poverty of the formerly colonized world – has slowed and, for many people and regions, withered and died.

While globalization and the communications revolution embodied in the Internet have created enormous wealth, they have left many behind – particularly those lacking in human and social capital. The stories of both Ta-Nehisi Coates growing up in urban Baltimore (“Between the World and Me”) and J.D. Vance growing up in rural Kentucky (“Hillbilly Elegy”) speak to the importance of human capital and the absolutely critical need for social capital if we are to reverse this growing divide.

It is discouraging, therefore, that most of the political debate surrounding the question of how to repair our social fabric has focused on financial capital, on taking from some and giving to others. This seems the approach most clearly likely to be unsuccessful in our increasingly divided and hypersuspicious social climate.

It is therefore gratifying to see one of Maine’s most successful and longest-running efforts to build social capital highlighted in so prominent a program as the Educational Testing Service’s Opportunity Project. The EdGE Program is an after-school and summer program based in Cherryfield for students in the coastal communities of Washington County.

Operated by the Maine Seacoast Mission of Bar Harbor, the program provides a variety of educational, recreational and conservation programs for any child who wishes to attend, from pre-K to 12th grade. The program provides transportation from school, mentors who collaborate with teachers in the sending schools, and businesses who provide both financial support and on-site examples of what the world of work is and could be.

The program’s central purpose is to cultivate positive relationships, both among participants and between participants and people they would rarely if ever see in the ordinary course of their lives. As Seacoast Mission Director Scott Planting says, “They get a lot of ‘That’s great!’ from their interactions – not something they’re used to.”

Participants go places they wouldn’t otherwise go, meet people they wouldn’t otherwise meet, and engage in collaborative projects that provide social experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have. They embody the process of building social capital, a process far more readily available to children in more economically prosperous communities.

Yes, this program to build social capital is possible only because others provided financial capital through donations to the Seacoast Mission and human capital through volunteering their own time and skills. But it arose voluntarily after careful analysis by a group of residents who decided that of all the things they could do to improve the social fabric of Washington County, creating, operating and funding an after-school program was the single most important.

I wholeheartedly agree, not because I think it will solve all the county’s problems; not because I think it will replace the need for economic adjustment assistance, or tax reform or health care reform; but because I believe that building social capital is both the easiest and most important place to start the far longer, far more difficult task of repairing our social fabric.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]