The X Factor That Helps Cities Rebound

A community’s store of “social capital” can determine how well it rebounds from adversity.

Cities Rise and Fall

As one of the nation’s largest producers of steel, the city of Youngstown, Ohio, helped drive American prosperity in two of its most consequential eras — during the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century and after World War II, when the nation assumed its place as an economic and industrial superpower.

In a neighboring state, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, also rose to global pre-eminence as a manufacturing powerhouse, in this case for the breadth and quality of its furniture production. As early as the 1870s, it was known as “Furniture City,” drawing buyers worldwide.

Both places enjoyed decades of prosperity as leaders of their respective industries; both cities also suffered wrenching, even precipitous declines as the result of economic change. In 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced its shutdown, throwing thousands out of work. In Grand Rapids, the furniture industry moved first to North Carolina in the 1960s and then to China in the 1990s. While Grand Rapids is still the home of office furniture manufacturers such as SteelCase and Herman Miller, its current footprint in this industry is much smaller than in its heyday.

The Question Is, Will a City Pull Out of a Slump

The two cities’ fortunes have diverged since their bottoming out — one is resurgent, while one is not. Their disparate fates offer vital clues to what communities need to be resilient in the face of economic change.

Youngstown, for instance, has continued to slump — its population has dropped by 60 percentsince the 1960s, and 38 percent of its population lives in poverty. Grand Rapids, in contrast, has earned a new moniker — “Beer City” — for its thriving craft-beer scene. Walk around downtown and you’ll see hipster boutiques, yoga studios and other services aimed at the millennial professionals now making Grand Rapids their home. Unlike Youngstown, Grand Rapids is growing; the city’s population has risen nearly 6 percent since 2010.

Things are not perfect in Grand Rapids — the poverty rate, for instance, is still 25 percent — but the city is recovering in a way that Youngstown is not. There is a palpable vibrancy to Grand Rapids, versus the air of abandonment that pervades Youngstown. Spectrum Health, which operates 12 hospitals in and around Grand Rapids, is a major employer, and there are innumerable small and medium-sized advanced manufacturers. These include such companies as Butterball Farms, Inc., best known for the preformed pats of butter you see in restaurants that come with your bread basket, and Cascade Engineering, which makes a wealth of “injection molded” plastic products, including truck and auto parts for major carmakers.

The X Factor of “Social Capital”

Myriad factors influence why some places succeed and others fail and why some places are more resilient than others. But one factor that stood out in a recent visit to both cities organized by the nonprofit Opportunity America was the difference in civic leadership. To put it bluntly, Grand Rapids was fortunate in its patrons, whereas Youngstown was not.

You can’t go far in Grand Rapids without seeing the names “DeVos” and “Van Andel,” the families whose patriarchs founded the global consumer goods behemoth Amway. The city boasts, for instance, the Van Andel Arena as well as the DeVos Place Convention Center, theVan Andel Institute for biomedical research and the Helen DeVos Childrens’ Hospital. The DeVos family alone has reportedly donated as much as $1.2 billion to Grand Rapids, which has unquestionably shaped the city’s cultural, economic, civic and social life.

These contributions are measurable in ways that go beyond the number of buildings bearing a benefactor’s name. In particular, this type of locally rooted philanthropy can help create and nurture the “social capital” — the networks and relationships people have with each other — that is increasingly being recognized as a vital resource for communities. Do people vote and volunteer? Are they involved in their schools, churches and even the neighborhood watch?

While social capital might be difficult to extract and quantify, its presence or absence is noticeable, both anecdotally in the amount of pride that residents have about where they live (every cab and Uber driver in Grand Rapids seems to make a point of mentioning the patronage of the DeVoses and Van Andels) as well as in its impact on such measures as rates of volunteering, voting and public faith in schools and other institutions, as well as the prevalence of family breakdown and other symptoms of societal dysfunction.

The Picture of Resiliency

One groundbreaking and ambitious effort to measure and map social capital was undertaken by Senator Mike Lee of Utah, whose Social Capital Project reveals wide disparities in social capital from state to state as well as county to county. Senator Lee’s project quantifies social capital according to four broad measures, including “family unity,” i.e. the share of single-parent families and the prevalence of unwed childbearing; “community health,” such as rates of volunteerism and churchgoing; “institutional health,” meaning the share of the population that votes and has “great confidence” in institutions such as the media and public schools; and “collective efficacy,” meaning the rate of violent crime. According to the data compiled by his office, the difference in social capital between Kent County, Michigan, where Grand Rapids is located, and Mahoning County, Ohio, where Youngstown is located, is indeed stark.

While Kent County ranks in the top half of counties nationally in its abundance of social capital, Mahoning County ranks near the bottom. Kent County, for instance, ranks near the top ten percent among all counties (in the 89th percentile) in its “institutional health,” while Mahoning County, in contrast, ranks in the 64th percentile. Mahoning County also ranks exceptionally poorly — in the bottom 12 percent of counties — on family unity.

Source: Office of Sen. Mike Lee

Finding Support Where Social Capital is Lacking

As important as social capital is, it’s not obvious how public policy can help build social capital where it’s lacking. Government programs can’t create the kind of commitment that families like the DeVoses and the Van Andels have shown to Grand Rapids, nor can it coerce civic engagement from a disengaged or disenchanted populace.

What it can do, however, is to ease the economic pressures that make community engagement impossible. Families struggling to put food on the table do not have the time or intellectual energy left over to devote to the stewardship of their neighborhoods as well. Government can also reward and encourage efforts to reinvest in struggling communities, with efforts such as the Opportunity Zones legislation included in the 2017 tax law. It can also support efforts like that of Senator Mike Lee as well as those of a growing number of academic researchers who are working to measure social capital and its impacts and understand what policies can in fact catalyze its rebirth in places like Youngstown. In a report set to be released in November by a study group convened by Opportunity America and co-sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, this question of how to build social capital figures prominently.

Whatever the solutions ultimately turn out to be, the goal should be to ensure that places like Youngstown, though falling behind, are not forgotten and that their future potential left untapped.

Originally published at on October 25, 2018.

I write about politics, economics, poverty and opportunity. Author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, from the New Press.