Does Rising Neighborhood Diversity Lead to a Drop in Social Capital?

A new study led by Willie Belton, an associate professor of economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, examined 15 years of county-level U.S. Census data with details on Black, Latino, White, and Asian population. The researchers also looked at another data set tracking membership in social, religious, and political groups. These measures, researchers have argued, are good proxies for social trust. The study found that social capital increased in counties where one ethnicity dominates, but declined in communities with higher rates of diversity.

Some researchers suggest that social capital may decline because people retreat into their shells when faced with rising diversity — rejecting newcomers but also pulling back on engagement with people of their own ethnic group in an effort to shelter themselves.

Despite reinforcing the negative link between diversity and social capital, Belton and his coauthors cautioned that their study does not capture the potential benefits of diversity that favor economic innovation. They say these benefits could outweigh the negative influences on social capital accumulation.

Dr. Belton is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Pennsylvania State University. He has been on the Georgia Tech faculty since 1987.

The full study, “Diversity and Social Capital in the U.S: A Tale of Conflict, Contact or Total Mistrust?” was published in the June issue of the journal Review of Economics and Institutions. It may be accessed here.

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