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The Power of Connections: Cultivating Social Capital to Drive Economic Opportunity in Detroit

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By Afton Branche-Wilson, Anna Lam, and Judy Lansky


Public policy discourse about poverty often starts and ends with a call to expand resources including post-secondary education, income supports, or workforce development opportunities. Although this approach is foundational to reducing material hardship and boosting income, researchers recognize it does not fully address what is needed to drive economic mobility. In addition to policies and programs focused directly on economic success, individuals with lowincomes also require social capital, or the resources we gain from our relationships. An individual cashes in on her social capital by staying with a family member following an eviction, asking someone for a job reference, or borrowing a car from a cousin to get to a doctor’s appointment. Research suggests social capital is particularly salient in the employment context, helping workers land their first jobs or higher-paying jobs compared to those who find jobs through other means.

In Detroit, where 20% of residents in the labor force are unemployed and 30% of residents earn under $20,000 a year, social service providers and policymakers should incorporate social capital development into new and existing programs designed to increase income, employment, and education. Developing social capital as a strategy to reduce poverty in Detroit complements and enhances current initiatives aimed to boost employment equity and improve post-secondary education. Social capital helps a jobseeker hear about a new job training initiative, find a ride to get to orientation, and secure a reference when it’s time to apply for a role. In this brief, we explore how social capital operates in Detroit, highlight promising local initiatives, and recommend strategies for action.

Key Takeaways:

  • Social capital reduces hardship and improves access to resources in Detroit. Many residents make use of their relationships to give and receive material, informational, and emotional support. Compared to New York and Los Angeles residents, however, Detroiters are less likely to feel that neighbors are willing to help each other.
  • Structural factors—including a weak job market, widespread blight, school closures, and racial segregation—limit the amount of capital available within Detroit social networks, particularly the type of social capital that fuels upward economic mobility.
  • Detroit’s ecosystem of community-based organizations mitigates these structural barriers, and several local groups offer successful and innovative models for incorporating social capital development into social service delivery. Public and private funders should continue to invest in organizations pursuing these approaches.
  • Given the urgency of alleviating economic hardship in Detroit, government, philanthropic, and nonprofit leaders should integrate social capital building strategies into their existing economic and community development work. Leaders must connect residents to each other, in addition to connecting residents to programs. Strategies to grow social capital include: designing programming and hosting events to foster peer-to-peer connections, investing in open community spaces in every neighborhood, and increasing access to information.


  • Government agencies and social service providers should integrate social capital development into their program models to amplify the urgent work of advancing economic mobility in Detroit. Program and service delivery should aim to “strategically broker social ties” to encourage the development of larger and more diverse networks, which create additional opportunities for social capital development. Residents have something to offer each other, and many are looking to grow their networks, not just seek services or resources from professional staff. Therefore, organizers can create programming to highlight Detroiters’ strengths and facilitate connections. City-led community meetings, for example, could kick off with an icebreaker or speed networking session. Service providers could recruit clients as program volunteers or encourage them to join an advisory committee; inviting clients to participate in service provision enables them to connect with other, but also recognizes the insights and efforts of community members. Researchers also encourage service providers to design programs that offer long-term, meaningful engagement opportunities between participants, not just one-off workshops. Human services programs could pair a job training or literacy class with ongoing community building programming, such as a peer-led job seekers club or community dinner like those offered at the TimeBank. Cohort-based models, like those operated by Rebel Nell, enable individuals with shared goals to connect and motivate each other through the program. To stimulate connections, staff might organize discussion or lunch groups around a shared interest or encourage participants to set up carpools to attend meetings. Residents gain social capital through programs and services, as well as through their connections with organizations. As such, social service organizations can leverage their organization’s social capital by connecting clients to partner organizations, influential individuals via guest speaker events, or by inviting board members to volunteer alongside clients. They should also aim to hire community members or program alumni as staff, to facilitate trusting and mutually beneficial relationships between individuals from similar backgrounds. Some organizations, like Brilliant Detroit, utilize their office spaces to build relationships and offer tangible assistance, by offering drop-in hours where participants are able to borrow books, use computers, or talk to staff.
  • Ensure every neighborhood has an open access community space throughout the year. Public spaces facilitate interactions needed to grow social capital, but these spaces are not available to all Detroiters in their own neighborhoods. Detroiters have specifically called for additional spending on safe, open community spaces to improve neighborhood safety and quality of life, and some people directly connect these assets to economic mobility. “It seems neighborhood centers would most provide what’s missing,” said one resident at a focus group on economic mobility in Detroit. “They’d bring in needed services and foster community, which is vital to connection, safety, life, and excitement.” The City of Detroit, Kresge Foundation, community development organizations, and other stakeholders have heavily invested in activating vacant lots, renovating parks, and constructing community hubs in recent years, and they should continue this critical work to champion social capital development. These initiatives can drive community building even before community spaces are open, per an evaluation of Kresge’s KIP:D initiative, which suggests the process of rehabilitating physical spaces in a way that engages community members builds neighborhood-level social capital. After community spaces are open, funding for maintenance matters too; research shows high levels of litter and poorly-maintained public spaces like playgrounds are associated with lower levels of trust in neighbors and government to do what’s right.
  • Fund community organizations to promote social capital development. Local philanthropy should continue to make funds available specifically to bring Detroiters together and develop valuable connections. One innovative example: the Neighborhood Tables project, an initiative of Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit (BECDD) and CDAD, aims to create formal tables where residents can gather to advocate for neighborhood priorities and in the process “build crosssector relationships and trust within every neighborhood. Funding this work also promotes equity, since dedicated support for smaller, grassroots organizations ensures more neighborhoods have active, sustainable organizations to bring neighbors together, with less reliance on the limited personal funds of community leaders.
  • Increase access to information about social services and programs. Information is one of the most important forms of currency that our contacts can share with us, but Detroiters report significant challenges finding information about available programs and services, such as the poverty tax exemption or affordable after-school care. To resolve this, residents pointed to the need for “someplace where people can go to find out how to do things (check deeds, check landlords, find out about community meetings, etc.).” Democratizing information about public or nonprofit resources reduces the need for residents to know someone to find what they are looking for. To reduce information gaps, residents have advocated for expanded home internet and Wi-Fi connection spots; comprehensive online, mobile, and physical community information hubs; and universal translation of community information into all languages that Detroiters speak at home.
  • Continue to invest in equitable economic, workforce and community development. Social capital is not “an alternative to providing greater financial resources and public services to poor communities. Rather, it constitutes an essential means to increase such resources and to make more effective use of them.” Developing social capital as a strategy to reduce poverty in Detroit should complement, but not replace, the ongoing but incomplete work of investing directly in neighborhood revitalization, workforce development, educational equity, housing stability, and other initiatives. In turn, these projects can positively impact social capital. A successful job placement program benefits participants, and it also has the potential to benefit their networks; for every additional Detroiter who secures a good job, their community gains one more person who knows how to find one.

Download pdf of full policy brief