Communities, Culture, and Capabilities

Stern, Mark J.; Seifert, Susan C. (2014). 'Communities, Culture, and Capabilities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The past generation has seen a lively debate over the relationship of the arts and culture to social inequality.  Chastened by conservative attacks over the 'elite' nature of the arts, the cultural community has searched for ways to demonstrate the contribution of the arts and culture to social wellbeing.  The University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) in Philadelphia (USA) was founded to develop methods and evidence to examine this link.  Over the past several years, thanks in part to its collaboration with the Bielefeld Center for Education and Capability Research at the University of Bielefeld (Germany), SIAP has focused its work on developing measures of social wellbeing and cultural resources for the city of Philadelphia at the census tract level.

The capabilities approach (CA) attempts to translate a commitment to social justice into a concrete strategy for empirical study.  Until recently, however, CA scholars had devoted more energy to theoretical than empirical work. This shortcoming has been corrected somewhat by the appearance of several studies (by the OECD, Eurostat, and the Commission for the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress) based on the capabilities approach. These studies recommended a set of empirical measures that could be used to estimate economic and social progress but were focused on making cross-national comparisons.

The 2009 Sen/Stiglitz Commission represents the most ambitious effort to use conceptual clarity to frame the empirical study of social wellbeing.  After reviewing the existing literature on both subjective and capabilities approaches to wellbeing, the Commission proposed an eight-dimension definition of wellbeing and then identified the types of data necessary for estimating each of these dimensions.

The Philadelphia project took the eight dimensions of wellbeing specified by the Commission as its starting point but sought to move beyond its work in several ways.  First, the Sen/Stiglitz report focused on the potential for measuring wellbeing at the national level. In our work, we have sought to ask if we can measure wellbeing at the more human scale of the urban neighborhood or census tract.  Second, the Sen/Stiglitz report was preoccupied with the contribution of government policy to wellbeing.  In our work, we have sought to integrate individual and civic conditions into our portrait.

These two innovations are closely related.  The capabilities approach typically views individuals as operating in the context of the national economy and state. Intermediate institutions—civil society, neighbors, and families—play little role in its work.  Yet, as Robert Sampson[1] has reminded us, neighborhood conditions provide a durable and profound influence on how people act, the opportunities they enjoy, and the challenges they face. By moving to a neighborhood scale, we can better understand how actual social conditions, not just public policy, enhance or restrict people's ability to do or be in particular ways.

This paper reports the first findings of this project. Although the design began with Sen and Stiglitz's eight dimensions, during the data collection phase, we found several dimensions to be so correlated that it made little sense to treat them separately.  In particular, material wellbeing (income), educational attainment, and personal activity (labor force attachment, job satisfaction) were combined into a single measure of economic wellbeing.  Several of the Sen/Stiglitz dimensions, on the other hand, split into more than one dimension. For example, we discovered that social connection included one dimension related to the presence of nonprofit organizations and high mobility rates in the neighborhoods and a second dimension associated with measures of residents' sense of belonging and trust in their neighbors. In the end, the analysis resulted in a twelve-dimension index of social wellbeing (see table below). 

Dimensions of social wellbeing--Philadelphia sub-indexes and descriptions

Economic wellbeing--Material standard of living: income, educational attainment, labor force participation

Economic diversity--Gini coefficient (measure of inequality), poverty, unearned income

School effectiveness--Current school proficiency scores, dropout rate, truancy

Housing--Overcrowding, housing financial stress, vacancy rate, code violations

Social connection / Institutional--Nonprofit organizations, cultural assets, percent residents lived elsewhere one year ago

Social connection / Face-to-face connection--Trust, belonging, participation

Insecurity--High personal and property crime rates, Human Relations Commission complaints

Health / Morbidity--Diabetes, hypertension, obesity

Health / Insurance, access--Low insurance rates, delayed care due to cost

Health / Social Stress--High teen pregnancy, lack of prenatal care, high homicide, reports of child abuse & neglect

Environment--Parks, trees, grass, (flood plains), underground streams (inverse), heat vulnerability

Political Voice--Percent of eligible population casting ballots in 2007 and 2008  

Each of the twelve dimensions was calculated for each of the city of Philadelphia's 360 inhabited census tracts.  The paper presents the results of this analysis.  Following Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit, we then examined the clustering of advantage and disadvantage in particular parts of the city.

The next section of the paper examines relationships between different dimensions of wellbeing.  We find, first of all, that economic wellbeing—a combination of income, educational attainment, and labor force attachment—drives many of the other dimensions of wellbeing.  Second, we examine the role of social connection as a mitigating influence on social wellbeing.  In particular, we find that—controlling statistically for the influence of economic wellbeing—institutional connection, face-to-face connection, and cultural assets have a significant influence on factors including school achievement and morbidity.

The paper concludes with a discussion of policy implications of the work.  In particular, the use of small geographic areas for the analysis allows us to examine the ways that governmental policy, civil society, and the values and behavior of individual residents interact to influence both people's capabilities and their ability to translate those capabilities into functionings.

[1] See Robert J Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, University of Chicago Press, 2012.

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