By Lucy Connery
The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo & Western New York, Inc.
Anyone who lives in Buffalo or in the surrounding areas knows it as a big city, with a small town feel. The city’s branding as the “City of Good Neighbors” can be taken as true or not true, depending on your perspective, but from a health perspective, that statement holds tremendous value. Living in a big city provides access to resources, services, and networking opportunities (social capital). Together, all of these factors help to increase individual and community-level quality of life.
Social capital is an idea that sometimes feels not-so tangible, but that offers great benefits to health and wellness. Social capital is defined as “…the connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them,” (Putnam, 2000) and this factor has direct implications with health outcomes. Generally, the theory around social capital implies that if you have better relationships with the individuals and organizations in your community, your health and your quality of life will benefit from these relationships. Social capital can affect health in that it increases responsibility, the amount of health information to which you are exposed, as well as the amount of community resource development (Folland & Nauenberg, 2018). Social capital also decreases stress and risky behaviors (Folland & Nauenberg, 2018). Social capital, rooted in trust and reciprocity, makes people feel more accountable for their health and decisions, while it also provides social supports to individuals where if they are in a bind, slip up, or need help, they know they can go somewhere for help.
You might be asking yourself—so what? Who cares about social capital? The truth is, a lot of people rely on their individual social capital without even knowing it. If in your neighborhood you have a strong, positive sense of social capital, you may not feel as stressed or as guilty to ask a neighbor to do you a favor. People who smoke in your neighborhood may not smoke near your home if they know you have children, or someone may be less likely to drink and drive because they do not want to put the individuals that are a part of their social network in danger.
Social capital can help to improve health status and quality of life. Again, you may be asking, how? Although quality of life may seem difficult to measure since it is a somewhat subjective measure, there are metrics to track it. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2018) provides county health rankings for the entire nation, using measures like morbidity (disease/conditions), mortality (death), access to resources, and many other factors to rank counties based on their health. Out of the 62 counties in New York State, Erie County was ranked 57th, and Niagara county was 55th. These numbers to some, especially those vendors at health and wellness fairs, are surprising. Physical activity and wellness are two areas especially where the region could do better.
Overall our area needs to improve in our major health indicators like morbidity and mortality, and taking advantage and improving our social capital is one way to do so.
An example of how social capital has improved the health of Western New York is the infamous story of Tonawanda Coke. A small group of Tonawanda residents created an organization called the Citizens Science Community Resources, and through this non-profit they collaborated as a community and fought for the public’s health and environmental justice to show how the industry was harming the health of the community. The Greater Buffalo Niagara Area has already proven how social capital can unite a community and create change through collaboration and inclusivity. Therefore, we need to take advantage of our big city with a small-town feel; if we create even more relationships and social networks/supports that are marked by trust and reciprocity, the sky is the limit on our opportunities to improve our own health and well-being.
Folland, S. & Nauenberg, E. (2018). Elgar companion to social capital and health. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.
Putman, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.