Strengthening connections also strengthens economy

Sarah Johnson
Sarah Johnson

When we talk about community, the first thing that comes to mind is often related to place — where we live and who else lives there. It’s worth considering, though, that community comes from the Latin word communis, meaning common. In other words, community is really about the things we have in common.

A large body of research indicates that when people maintain strong connections to others and attachment to their communities, then communities benefit. Notable among the research is Soul of the Community, a three-year study conducted by Gallup in conjunction with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This study of 26 cities across the United States found the communities with the highest levels of attachment also enjoyed the highest rates of gross domestic product growth.

Over the past year, Mesa County Public Health and a large group of local partners have put considerable time and energy into examining the common elements that make our community strong as well as the differences that call for improvement. The Community Transformation Group (CTG) focuses on social capital — the number and quality of personal relationships and social networks, participation in the community and trust in institutions — as a key indicator of positive local outcomes related to education, health care and the economy.

Last summer, a team from MCPH conducted a survey to measure social capital. The answers of the more than 1,500 respondents from across Mesa County suggest there’s important work to be done.

Age, income and education were strong influences in respondents’ social capital scores. Individuals under 50 were much less likely to identify sources of social capital than those 50 and older. Higher levels of income and education also were associated with higher perceived social capital.

Respondents who earned between $35,000 and $75,000 a year frequently reported a low sense of community pride. They expressed frustration with health services, the economy, education and how local democracy works. Among those who earned less than $35,000, a sense of being left out of society was pervasive and participation in community activities was low.

Overall, people reported fairly strong rates of satisfaction in their closest relationships — 81 percent for friends and 78 percent for relatives. However, only 51 percent of respondents reported being satisfied with their relationships with neighbors.

Consider some other striking local numbers that demand transformation: At 32.3 suicides per 100,000 of population, the Mesa County suicide rate is nearly 2.5 times higher than the rest of the nation. Our median household income of $48,846 is more than 25 percent below the statewide median, and we have 5 percent more children living in poverty than the statewide average.

Research supports the notion individuals fare better when they’re supported by good relationships both within and outside their immediate circles. The measurable social value includes all of us. But there’s also a strong correlation between community capital investments and such community benefits as enhanced well-being, opportunities for employment and training and potential for savings in public service expenditures.

The CTG is moving forward with neighborhood-level actions that will contribute to higher social capital with the dual goal of making a dent in statistics like the ones above and increasing the vitality of our community as a whole. Our current efforts are focused on the area around Rocky Mountain Elementary School in Clifton, where residents have been enthusiastic about the opportunity to improve and connect their community.

The CTG coalition — which includes businesses, non-profit organizations, schools, faith communities and such government entities as the Mesa County Department of Human Services — will help residents build a sense of community, partner with local organizations to provide the infrastructure for solutions and increase participation in neighborhood activities.

Most of us with the strong positive relationships and connections that equate to high social capital feel fortunate to live in the Grand Valley. Our goal is for everyone in Mesa County to share in that feeling. The business community plays a vital role in that effort.