Can social capital explain persistent racial poverty gaps?

Lincoln Quillian, Rozlyn Redd

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

6 Scopus citations


Social capital has recently become one of the most widely used concepts in sociology and social science. No fewer than four monographs (Lin 2001; Aberg and Sandberg 2003; Feld 2003; Halpern 2005), ten edited volumes, and 900 social science articles (Halpern 2005, figure 1.1) on social capital have been published since 2001. The term has been one of sociology's most successful exports, finding its way into political science, economics, and anthropology. Broadly encompassing the personal relationships that aid in achieving goals, social capital is not a single explanation or variable, but rather points toward a variety of explanations of how informal human social relationships are important for human behavior. A number of social capital explanations have been proposed for the persistence of major disparities in poverty rates among racial and ethnic groups. Many of these explanations are long-standing and actually predate the term social capital. William Julius Wilson's social isolation thesis in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), for instance, argues that the isolation of poor urban minorities from social contact with middle class persons contributes to their persistent poverty. Likewise, the Coleman report's (1966) finding that socioeconomic status of school peers predicts school success, and that minority students have peers of lower socioeconomic standing, suggests a social capital explanation. In most social capital explanations of racial poverty gaps, a disadvantaged racial or ethnic group's structural position in social networks results in a reduced stock of a type of social capital, contributing to higher rates of group poverty. Less commonly, some explanations focus on the potential negative consequences of social relationships as a form of negative social capital. Here we consider whether several leading social capital theories can explain persistent disparities in poverty rates across racial groups. We begin with the definition of social capital and then move on to the relevance, for social capital, of high levels of segregation or homophily on the basis of race and ethnicity. In many situations, segregation or homophily combines with racial inequality to create contextual disadvantages for members of disadvantaged racial groups. The consequences of segregation or homophily, however, are not necessarily negative: segregation or homophily can also facilitate developing denser or stronger social networks by grouping like individuals together, contributing to community institutions and social control. A wide variety of theories can be described as social capital theories (Portes 1998; Small 2004; Halpern 2005) and we focus on four of the most promising social capital explanations of racial differences in poverty outcomes. One is that employment and wage gaps of nonwhite jobseekers can be explained by exclusionary job networks. Another is that lower-income nonwhites often reside in urban neighborhoods with low levels of collective efficacy, reducing their ability to control delinquency and crime. A third is that coethnic social capital contributes to lower poverty rates among certain immigrant groups and their offspring. The fourth is that endogenous friend effects in peer networks are a source of educational disadvantage. At points we supplement our review of the literature with analysis of data on peer social capital from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). We conclude that the evidence for these explanations is mixed, but that the stronger evidence supports the contextual disadvantages from disadvantaged neighborhoods and peer groups, which contribute especially to crime and delinquency problems in minority communities. We also suggest that social capital among coethnics aids the incorporation of new immigrants and can facilitate the school achievement of second generation immigrant youth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Colors of Poverty
Subtitle of host publicationWhy Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages28
ISBN (Print)9780871545398
StatePublished - 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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