Does Durham Have Low Social Capital?

One of the things I love about Durham is the community feel. There are people here who care about what happens in the community, that vote to increase their own taxes for affordable housing, that support causes that they believe in, that create community-oriented events, and nonprofits, and businesses. In the past few weeks, I have seen some amazing responses in the community to the COVID-19 pandemic as well: community organization and people helping their neighbors.

That's why I was surprised to Durham's ranking in the U.S. Congress's, The Geography of Social Capital in America. Essentially, social capital are the bonds you have with your community and your neighbors. Do you have people nearby that will watch your kid if you need to go to a job interview? Do you borrow tools from neighbors to get yard work done? Do you have family members within your household that you can rely on to pick you up if your car broke down? Essentially, do you have the support system that gives you resiliency?

Here is a snapshot of Durham County from the project's website (click for a larger, clearer version):

Durham ranks 2,483rd out of 2,992 counties in the United States that have data? That seems REALLY bad! Durham is in the bottom 18% of counties. Those results did not line up with my expectations, so I wanted to take a look at the data they used to create these rankings. They were split up into categories.

1. Family Unity Subindex


  • Share of births in the past year to women who are unmarried
  • Share of women ages 35-44 who are currently married (and not separated)
  • Share of own children living in a single-parent family
The family unity subindex gives me pause. I understand what they are trying to measure, but are unmarried women really a fair indicator for not having strong familial support? However, even if theses indicators aren't perfect, maybe there is some validity. I would love to counter the "single-parent family" indicator by imagining a child who lives with a single parent, but whose grandparents, aunts, and uncles all live on the same block. However, I'm not sure how common having that familial support nearby is. Still, talking about unmarried women as indicators could conjure up "family values"-style arguments that can get messy with imposing religion and other value systems on others. Durham appears to be in the bottom 20% of counties for familial support based on the traditional nuclear family data that we can measure.

Side note: if you are as interested in the intersection of the nuclear family and degrading social capital as I am, this article in the Atlantic by David Brooks was a great read.

2. Community Health Subindex

  • Registered non-religious non-profits per 1,000
  • Religious congregations per 1,000
  • Informal Civil Society Sub-Index
Durham is in the bottom 34% for this subindex, which really surprised me. I would have guessed we would score highly on number of non-profits and religious congregations. The last indicator, the Informal Civil Society Sub-Index, is a:

"combination of share who volunteered, who attended a public meeting, who report having worked with neighbors to fix/improve something, who served on a committee or as an officer, who attended a meeting where politics was discussed, and who took part in a demonstration in the past year."

Again, I am surprised that Durham ranked so low there as well. At this point, I am starting to wonder if my rosy view of the Durham community was overstated.

3. Institutional Health Subindex

  • Average (over 2012 and 2016) of votes in the presidential election per citizen age 18+
  • Mail-back response rates for 2010 census
  • Confidence in Institutions Sub-Index
Durham actually scored in the 72nd percentile for this measure, meaning it scored pretty well (better than 71-72% of all counties). Good work Durham for getting out and voting! The "Confidence in Institutions Sub-Index" is a:

"combination of share reporting at least some confidence in corporations, in the media, and in public schools."

Perhaps Durham lost points for not being confident in the public school system?

4. Collective Efficacy

  • Violent crimes per 100,000
This is the first indicator that isn't a surprise to me. Sadly, crime is a big deal here. I am not making any political statements about what could/should be done about it, but violent crime is a problem in Durham. Consequently, Durham ranked in the bottom 5th percentile or 2,873rd out of 3,023 counties in the U.S. that had data for this measure.

Not measured

I may take issue with some of the indicators measured, but I also wanted to consider what was left out. There is nothing measuring the presence of extended family nearby, or the level at which you know your neighbors (and they'd be willing to help you out in a pinch). Number of non-profits doesn't exactly measure the impact of those non-profits (maybe I think there are more non-profits in Durham than there actually are because the ones I see make a bigger impact).

I am sure people can come up with more omissions, but still, the Social Capital Index from this report doesn't pretend to measure all of the factors. It just hopes to measure enough factors to get a sense for the overall social capital of a place. And I worry that while fixing the issues with the index would give Durham a different rank, it would still be much lower than I would have guessed a few months ago.

So, if you have a great idea for bringing communities and neighbors together (front porch concert series, more block parties, a garden tool lending program amongst neighbors, etc), go for it. Durham needs it.

What are your thoughts? Have a great idea to strengthen the community? Come discuss in the forums!

Check out the Forum!

To engage with other Durham enthusiasts, visit the forums here!

Popular Posts