When a monster storm in 2018 dumped 49.7 inches of rain in 24 hours on Kauai’s rural North Shore, the communities of Wainiha and Haena lost access to the 2-mile stretch of highway that is their sole lifeline to banks, gas stations, pharmacies, medical clinics, schools, most jobs and grocery stores.

Battered by more than a dozen landslides, the road remained closed for 15 months.

During that time, a condominium resort assumed the role of community kitchen, shelter and school. Neighbors on small excavation machines swarmed to form a massive ad hoc road clearance project before state crews could even get through with heavier equipment. Families shared food, resources and muscle, joining together to clean up their flooded-out homes.

This recovery story spotlights the area’s wealth in social capital, a valuable but depleting resource.

Driven by trust and participation, social capital is defined by the extent to which communities are likely to tackle their own conflicts and obstacles. It can be measured by the strength of the web of relationships between people who live, work and play there.

The presence of canoe clubs, farmers markets, Hawaiian civic clubs, libraries and churches in an area are all markers of healthy social capital. So is high voter turnout. 

Makaha Mauna Lahilahi Botanical Garden Cleanup Fault Lines
Kuʻuleilani Samson and Jonathan Abell clear a homeless encampment on the coast of Mauna Lahilahi Botanical Garden in Makaha. They are part of a volunteer group that is returning an all-but-abandoned county park to its former state of beauty. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

The concept of social capital is as old as Mesopotamia, but the term, used as a catch-all for what makes an organization resilient, dates to the 1980s. It has since become a well-known canon of sociology research: Why are some government, business and community networks stable, tolerant, collaborative and efficient, while others are not?

The term was further popularized by sociologist Robert D. Putnam, whose groundbreaking book “Bowling Alone,” published in 2000, unpacks how and why Americans have come to know their neighbors less, socialize with friends less frequently and, in what has become an iconic case study, go bowling alone.

On his website, Putnam offers this stripped-down meter:

“Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.

Every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%.

Watching commercial entertainment TV is the only leisure activity where doing more of it is associated with lower social capital.”

Apart from personal wellbeing, social capital has become an important metric for governments and foundations seeking to bolster the strength of local society.

A neighborhood’s social capital increases when a person lends her neighbor a helping hand, joins a sports club or develops a feeling of pride in her town. But it can just as easily drain out when two coworkers fail to become acquainted or the church on the corner shuts down some of its programming due to lack of interest.

Less flexible factors, like race and income, also play a role.

And just like other forms of capital, some regions may be swimming in a social capital surplus while others are bone dry.

Blame it on the internet or political polarization, but declines in community spirit across the nation are well documented in a growing body of news reports and research.

This is also true for Hawaii, which ranks 31st in the country for social capital, according to a state-by-state index created in 2018 by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.

Hawaii residents have less trust in local government than the national average. — Hawaii Social Capital Benchmark Survey

Yet despite Hawaii’s middle-of-the-road social capital ranking, the Aloha State differs from national norms in some striking ways.

In Hawaii, for example, people have greater trust in their neighbor than the national average. Hawaii residents also have more trust in the local news media, store clerks, police officers, their colleagues and people in general.

But Hawaii residents’ trust meter is measurably low in at least one area: Compared to the national average, there are fewer people in the islands who trust their local government to do the right thing.

That’s according to a pair of social capital benchmark surveys prepared by the Honolulu consultant group SMS Research in 2001 and 2010 for the Hawaii Community Foundation. Although the data is somewhat dated, it offers the most comprehensive analysis of the state’s social capital makeup, including an index of various subcomponents, such as civil participation and philanthropy.

A few more anomalies: Hawaii’s people have a higher charitable giving score — both in terms of time and money — than residents nationally. And on every measure of religious participation, Hawaii scored lower than the mainland.

A 2015 survey spotlights Kauai’s Kapa’a town and the Big Island’s Hilo side as local communities that are particularly rich in social capital. These are regions with a large population of longstanding residents, the survey found.

Communities with lower social capital identified in the analysis include Leeward Oahu and the Big Island’s Kona side. That’s because, according to the survey, these are less-stable communities with either changing populations or a high percentage of lower income residents.

As Civil Beat examines the resiliency of Hawaii’s real-life social networks, we invite you to share your own stories about the tight-knit communities that are collaborating to bridge differences and improve their circumstances.

Join The Conversation here.

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