LETTER: Reversing the erosion of social capital from COVID-19

Letter to the Editor submitted by Janet Stone McGuigan

Difficult days are ahead.  The predicted number of deaths from the corona virus is horrifying.  We will get through this, and we will have many heroes to thank for their tireless bravery and devotion throughout this ordeal, in particular our amazing health care workers and teachers.  But once we emerge, no doubt there is going to be lingering, dark feelings.  Globally, nationally, and locally we are going to have to chart a course of emotional healing as well as economic and physical recovery.

In these times, the works of Harvard’s Robert Putnam and Yale’s Robert Shiller resonate.  Long before the need to physically distance ourselves to avoid pandemic, Putnam’s thought-provoking “Bowling Alone” essay points out that society was socially distancing.  And in his book, “Our Kids,” he underscores not just the growing wealth gap in America, but also the growing inequality in terms of social capital – declining membership and participation in religious, civic and social organizations and groups.  There is an irony to this trend.  While wealth is actually a risk factor when assessing our children’s mental health, according to a study by Suniya Luthar,  what privileged children benefit from most is the social capital that this wealth fosters.  For instance, many studies have shown a correlation between a child’s academic success and a parent’s PTA involvement.  Not because of some quid pro quo, but perhaps because of the role modeling this volunteerism provides.  We can see the fallout from diminishing social capital playing out now, and we will surely feel the effects after this crisis passes.  What has been greatly felt in disadvantaged homes during this crisis is the lack of support to children as they navigate the “remote learning” curve.  We have the technology and resources to connect everyone, that is an easy fix (well, maybe not for my household, which is located in some sort of dead zone).  The harder problem to solve is going to be reversing this erosion of social capital.

Shiller’s “Narrative Economics” meanwhile highlights the importance of the stories and lessons we choose to take from this crisis.  To occupy myself during this quarantine, I have been going through the personal mementos, papers and photos I kept after selling my childhood home.

In addition to my parents’ bowling balls and trophies from the 50’s and 60’s, I’m finding family stories and genealogical records.  Here is fitting one.  One of my great-grandmothers had six brothers.  When the so-called Spanish flu struck in 1918, three of them lost their wives.  These great aunts were young, healthy and living in small towns in Upstate New York.  No one would have predicted such a fate for them.  They left behind not only grieving spouses but a number of young children.  That happened a century ago, but when I was born fifty years later, my family still recounted that story, proof of a family’s ability to endure and overcome hardship.

Moving to a different branch of the family tree, another great-grandmother was a Schuyler, related to although not descended from those three sisters made famous in Hamilton.  To readers not familiar with his story, Alexander Hamilton’s mother died of yellow fever.  Not long after her death, Hamilton saw his island community devastated by a hurricane.  These childhood traumas made their imprint on him.  It was so that government could work to increase the public good that he dedicated his life.  And while Hamilton was perhaps not a great defender of democracy, he did not see the threat of tyranny coming from epidemics and natural disasters, but rather the need for good government to overcome these tragedies.

Today, we struggle to remain healthy and sane while we isolate in a way never imagined.  Storytelling is a great way to get us through this period, and the tales we tell to understand our past and imagine our future tell us a lot about ourselves.

Janet Stone McGuigan, Old Greenwich