Civic and Social Bonds Fortify Communities, But Millions of Americans Lack Connections That Could Bolster Pandemic Recovery

18%—or 46 million adults—have just one or no trustworthy person they can approach for help like a ride to the airport, emotional support, assistance when sick, or watching a child in an emergency.

Published: June 10, 2021

A new Impact Genome/AP-NORC Poll shows that millions of people living in America lack key social bonds in their personal and professional life, face barriers to accessing important services and institutions, or aren’t meaningfully engaged in their community. COVID-19 has more often led to a decrease rather than increase in social capital on these measures, too. The study assesses people’s levels of social capital—the value they derive from personal relationships, connections to different types of people, engagement with and trust in institutions, and engagement in their community. Specifically, it measures social capital by exploring the public’s trusted personal and professional networks, their civic engagement, and their experiences navigating essential resources and institutions. Evidence shows that social capital can play a major role in economic recovery and promoting social mobility, particularly after major shocks like the pandemic.

In their personal lives, 18%, or about 46 million adults, have just one or no trustworthy person outside their household on whom they can rely for things like help when they are sick or looking after a child in an emergency. Differences in the size of trusted networks are especially acute by income, race and ethnicity, and education: white, college-educated, and wealthier adults are more likely to have more people they can rely on for personal support. Americans overall are more likely to report a decline rather than an increase because of COVID-19 in the number of people they could trust and how often they asked for help, though most saw no change.

On the professional front, 20%, or 49 million Americans, have no contact in their trusted network who can help draft a resume, connect with a potential employer, or provide advice with workplace challenges. White adults and more educated Americans have larger trusted professional networks. COVID-19 caused more adults to lose rather than gain social capital in their professional lives as well, though again, most saw no change.

When people build trusting relationships with others from a different ethnic or class background it can improve social cohesion, or the perceptions of connectedness, as well as trust in the larger community. And, more diverse workplaces are associated with better financial performance. The poll finds roughly half (52%) of Americans with at least one trustworthy person outside their home report racial or ethnic diversity in their personal networks, and half (50%) with at least one trustworthy person they rely on for career help say the same for professional networks. Those with a larger trusted network are also more likely to report racial or ethnic diversity in their personal or professional network. White adults are more likely to report homogenous circles in both the personal and professional realms. However, Americans with some support system report economic diversity, with 69% trusting at least one person of a different economic background in their personal circles, and 61% in their trusted professional networks.

About a third (30%) of Americans have engaged with government services like unemployment, cash assistance, food assistance, or Social Security in the past year, and interactions with government benefit systems have increased because of COVID-19. Most Americans were able to access the essential services they needed in the last year, but Black Americans were more likely than whites (25% versus 10%) to face barriers. The most common barrier to access among all Americans was knowledge: 62% cite not knowing if they were eligible for services or not knowing where to go for help. Using the legal system posed the highest barriers to Americans; about a third could not access supports. For educational institutions and government benefits, about a quarter of those seeking services say they could not get what they needed.

Social capital can be measured not just in the ability to access needed services, but also having someone to help navigate these institutions. With the serious health and economic challenges presented by COVID-19, about a third of those who interacted with any type of essential service received help from someone outside their household. Among those who received assistance, the vast majority reported that support was helpful and gave them a deeper understanding of the systems and how to navigate them.

When it comes to civic engagement, more than half of Americans say they volunteered or donated money to a civic cause (54%) in the last year, while just under half (48%) engaged with a formal civic group like a religious institution, school or community group, service group, or participated in a political cause in the same period. Still, a higher rate of all adults say they became less, rather than more involved with at least one civic institution (42% versus 21%), and a larger share of Americans gave less time, money, or other resources than gave more (35% versus 23%) as a consequence of the pandemic.

The nationwide Impact Genome/AP-NORC Poll was conducted with support from the MassMutual Foundation between March 25 and April 15, 2021, with 2,314 adults age 18 and older using AmeriSpeak®, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. Interviews were conducted online and via telephone using landlines and cell phones. The margin of sampling error is +/- 2.9 percentage points.

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