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September 30, 2005

Do Good Communities Make Liberals?

While studying the connections between social capital and health I stumbled across something rather odd. States with high social capital--strong connections between people and their communities--tend to vote democratic.

Harvard researcher, Ichiro Kawachi, one of the leading lights on social capital and health, has performed several studies that make state-by-state comparisons; and he's shown that, on average, states with higher social capital also have better health outcomes. But as I was peering over some of his charts I couldn't help but notice that states with higher social capital also tended to be "blue" states--they voted for John Kerry in the last presidential election.

Unfortunately, Kawachi reports the results for only 36 states (the others did not have sufficient data to support his study) so my little "finding" here refers only to those states, though they do include all the big ones. That's just one of the limitations, but I still think it's interesting that 6 of the 10 states with the highest social capital voted for Kerry in the 2004 elections. Meanwhile, 8 of the 10 states with the lowest social capital voted for George Bush in '04. Don't believe me? Here's the rank-ordered list....

(In keeping with prevailing media norms, republican-voting states are coded red; democrat-voting ones are blue.)

1 North Dakota
2 Iowa
3 Washington
4 Minnesota
5 New Hampshire
6 Rhode Island
7 Utah
8 Wisconsin
9 Oregon
10 Wyoming
11 Ohio
12 Colorado
13 New Jersey
14 Indiana
15 Michigan
16 Illinois
17 Massachussets
18 Kansas
19 Pennsylvannia
20 California
21 Missouri
22 Arizona
23 Connecticut
24 Texas
25 Kentucky
26 South Carolina
27 Alabama
28 New York
29 Maryland
30 Georgia
31 Arkansas
32 Mississippi
33 North Carolina
34 Tennesse
35 Oklahoma
36 Louisiana

As the list here shows, the relationship is certainly not comprehensive--there's a lot of muddle in the middle--but on the extremes there does appear to be a correlation between low social capital and voting for Bush.

While Kawachi never mentions the voting comparison, in a separate study he offers a plausible explanation in the context of health outcomes. He suggests that high social capital leads to more civic engagement and, in turn, to more investment of resources, money, and concern into the community at large. For Kawachi, that investment is a partial explanation for better health outcomes--places with high social capital care more about the welfare of others.

So I wonder whether--to the extent that democratic voters favor more public investment in the community and republicans less--that Kawachi's explanation fits. Places with higher social capital reflect their preference for community in their voting habits. In other words, good communities foster democratic voting.

Just a thought.

A couple of notes and caveats are in order...

*** Kawachi's measurement of social capital is, in this instance, a shorthand. It's the percent of people responding "yes" when asked whether most people would take advantage of them if given the chance. Most researchers think this is a reasonable, if abbreviated, way to assess social capital.

*** My list is extrapolated (read: eyeballed) from Howard Frumkin et al., Urban Sprawl and Public Health (Island Press: Washington, DC: 2004), p 167.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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