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Does Our Nation Still Offer Its Youth The Chance To Succeed Through Social Capital?


When I read David Brooks’s rather notorious piece from Tuesday about wealth indicators in the modern world—the cultural and economic barriers to upward mobility that can keep certain people down—I began thinking about my own Idaho family: the people who basically taught me everything there is to know about anything. (Except, perhaps notably, soppressata.)

My forefathers, who emigrated to Idaho in the mid-1800s, were poor, working-class people. They had been moving from town to town, seeking odd jobs their family could use to survive. (Theirs was a very “Grapes of Wrath” story.) The economic and cultural forces that combined to keep them in Idaho had little to do with desire, and everything to do with necessity: times were tough, and money was often tight, but their children had married and settled down in the valley. So the family stayed.

But with the next generation, the economic fortunes of my family began to change. This was, in large part, due to the amazing work ethic and determination of my great-grandfather. He brought his family through the throes of the Great Depression, building a self-sustainable and economically profitable farm. Along with the thrift and talent of his wife, the two of them raised their family from working-class subsistence to middle-class existence.

Their son (my grandfather) went on to become a banker. His hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, alongside his wife—also a banker—resulted in raising the family’s fortunes once again, deeper into middle-class comfort. My grandmother cooked from Williams-Sonoma cookbooks, knew Emily Post’s etiquette by heart, wore Chanel perfume, attended banking meetings in stilettos and suits, and treasured a wealth of well-pressed linens and fine china in her cupboards.

Within three generations, my family had passed from a near-destitute existence to one of sophistication and comfort. How did that happen?

Social Capital Is Often Vital To Economic Transcendence

Well, it didn’t come easy. My great-grandfather’s back was permanently bent from digging ditches. He aggravated some employees via his severe work ethic, demanding as much labor from others as he demanded from himself. And while he died comfortably, he died in the same farmhouse—on the same land—he and his wife had worked for decades.

To at least some degree, it was his dogged and tenacious dedication to land and place that enabled his children to transcend the farm and farmland. He emerged from the pains and difficulties of his working-class parents—but to some extent, he did so by not moving. By staying in one spot. He had a network there, you see, in the midst of that small farming town: an entire web of farmers with whom he worked, a church family that was deep and strong and interdependent, a town whose local businessmen and workers he knew by name. That community helped him succeed.

That’s something Brooks’ commentary doesn’t emphasize enough: the importance of social capital over cultural codes. Poor kids don’t get richer by learning the language and customs of the elites. They’re empowered to transcend their circumstances when they’re surrounded by a strong, loyal, loving network: a group of people who help them succeed in life.

That social network could be a family, a church, a neighborhood, or civic group of some sort. Ideally, it should be some combination of these various groups. But without that web of support, transcending one’s economic—and, correspondingly, cultural—circumstances becomes increasingly hard. In Brooks’s defense, he has indeed written this before: he recognizes the importance of social capital, especially in a technological and increasingly fragmented age.

But I’ve been wondering how much my great-grandfather’s rural success story is actually possible anymore. Rural towns are now experiencing a great deal of decay and brain drain—which means the talent and work ethic is draining away, increasingly pulled to the city, and the social capital is fraying at the edges. In many urban environments, gentrification has begun to tear apart the social capital of strong and long-standing communities. People who move into these neighborhoods often don’t frequent the local church, the local barber shop, or corner grocery. They live more solipsistically. And that doesn’t just affect their standing in the community: it affects the wellbeing of the less fortunate surrounding them.

These all represent changes from my grandparents’ move into middle-class comfort. My great-grandfather sat regularly at my grandmother’s table, eating from her dishes (some of which had belonged to his wife), sipping coffee and eating apple pie alongside his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. While things had changed on an economic front, the cultural, intellectual, and geographical ties that bonded the family together hadn’t really changed. My grandparents all attended the Nazarene church their entire lives, and spent time among the same group of hard-working and thoughtful Christian folks.

Our Increasingly Fragmented Culture Makes This Hard

There’s an important difference in upward mobility when it implies or involves a geographic shift. If a young person moves permanently in order to transcend his economic station, the ties he feels to his family and community can be damaged. Such people often risk their social capital for economic capital. While there’s nothing wrong with moving in order to succeed at something (I’m a native Idahoan living in Virginia, after all), we should also acknowledge the consequences of such moves. Especially to those communities we leave behind. As Gerald Russello of the University Bookman put it in a thoughtful series of tweets (responding to Rod Dreher’s analysis of Brooks’ piece) a couple days ago,

There is, of course, a middle ground between these extremes: we don’t have to be proficient in our knowledge of Italian deli meats or David Foster Wallace in order to flourish economically and culturally. We don’t have to prize all the same things the 20 percent holds dear in order to count ourselves successful. We often put too much stock in the opinions of the elites, and too little in the habits and mores of their ancestors—the people who brought them to this point. But we should also push the next generation to be diligent, hard-working, and entrepreneurial—whether that involves a geographical move or not. My great-great-grandfather was himself a pioneer and entrepreneur: someone who resettled in order to build a better life for himself and his family.

As a journalist whose dad was an accountant, whose dad was a banker, whose dad was a farmer, whose dad was a travelling dentist-farmer struggling to survive, I don’t believe cultural and economic barriers must always prevent a person from transcending her economic or cultural station. But a lot depends on the work ethic and mores of your family, and the place they settle in—whether it has strong communal ties, and a supportive infrastructure.

An America that offers this sort of social capital can still, perhaps, oppose and prevent the worst of the elites’ biases and snobberies. But we need to figure out how to repair our increasingly fragmented fabric, how to bring familial and communal wholeness back to broken towns. Because that’s what can make the poorest of communities strong.