“Fragile Neighborhoods”: A Q&A with Author Seth Kaplan

Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Seth Kaplan, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and senior advisor to the Institute for Integrated Transitions, about his new book “Fragile Neighborhoods.” In his book, Kaplan proposes a bold new vision for addressing social decline in America starting with our own neighborhoods. Through inspiring stories of people who are making a tangible impact strengthening their communities, and practical lessons for readers and philanthropists to apply, Kaplan gives a blueprint for how we can revitalize local institutions one ZIP code at a time. 

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: You have spent decades studying fragile states and societies, working in over 30 different countries across Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. Given your international career, what prompted you to write a book about American society? 

Kaplan: In my travels and studies, the most important lesson I’ve learned is how much relationships and the social institutions that support them matter to the health of any society. They matter more than people realize. While every place is different, I have consistently seen how such dynamics influence a society’s trajectory. The stronger the ties and institutions bonding people with one another, the greater the capacity to solve problems peaceably, promote wealth creation and address deep-seated challenges. 

My work with the World Bank, State Department and the United States Agency for International Development gave me a reputation as a fragile states expert. Starting in 2015-2016, more and more people started asking me whether America is also a fragile state. They were shaken by what they were seeing during the presidential elections, and they wondered what was wrong with the country.  

Of course, given that I was regularly traveling to places in political turmoil such as Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Colombia, I did not think we were a fragile state. America has a stable government, reasonably well functioning institutions, a dynamic business sector, advanced technology and receives more immigrants than any other country. But as I dug deeper, I uncovered that what we have is a fragile society—and that its effects are starting to show up downstream in our politics.  

My research eventually led me to believe the heart of our social decay is not something national but something local. The less we are connected to one another—embedded in institutions that support us and those around us in our daily lives—the more destructive our social problems are likely to be. 

Q: In your new book, “Fragile Neighborhoods,” you describe how many charitable organizations do good work when it comes to promoting individual success and individual goals but many fail to strengthen local social institutions like marriage, family and volunteer associations.  What should philanthropy’s role be improving social institutions in America and creating support systems to help communities thrive?  

Kaplan: The primary frame for my book is how physical places matter. I refer to them as “social habitats.” Neighborhoods sit upstream from many of America’s social ills, such as steadily rising inequality, children raised in unstable households, loneliness and deaths of despair. Indicators show that everything from life expectancy to crime rates to student test scores to social mobility are not only correlated with each other but also with a physical location.  

I argue that neighborhood institutions, including norms around marriage, inter-household cooperation and cross-class friendship, play a large role in this dynamic. As a result, many social problems are magnified when their concentration in specific locales creates a multiplier effect. This concentration has lifelong effects on children and youth living there, with implications that can last across generations.  

We can observe differences in the quality of social habitats by measuring remarkable disparities in outcomes. For example, two American neighborhoods can differ in life expectancy by 41.2 years—a staggering range. As a result, sociologist Patrick Sharkey, in an essay coauthored with professor George Galster, wrote “the fault lines for spatial inequality may be gradually shifting in the United States,” with place-based disadvantage becoming a greater problem than race-based disadvantage in explaining why some people thrive and some do not.  

There are relatively few elements that matter most to the success of any neighborhood, including family structure, social capital, access to opportunity, quality of schools, racial and income diversity, the vitality of the local economy, public safety and the built landscape. Each of these has been found by researchers and practitioners to have an outsized impact, and each is rooted squarely in physical place. 

Philanthropists should be concerned about their return on investment and discerning about which organizations they fund and why. They should focus more on strengthening the social institutions and habitats that matter so much to individual and family flourishing. This requires a new way of thinking and new ways to measure success than are currently used. It might mean, for example, using neighborhood scorecards and indicators of relational health instead of looking for answers at the individual level. 

Q: In your book you say some of the richest neighborhoods in America are just blocks away from the poorest but also that some of the poorest neighborhoods are the most socially strong. You also say drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and mental health struggles are all too common in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Can you elaborate on the link between mental health and the strength of our social support systems?   

Kaplan: Distinguishing between the material and social is essential to understanding how well any individual, family, neighborhood or society is doing. While we often track success through the size of our income or assets, there are plenty of studies concluding that relationships are essential to our health and well-being. When our social habitat doesn’t provide support structures, it takes a toll on our emotional, psychological and physical health because our most basic needs aren’t satisfied. And we see that when social ties are weak, material wealth alone is not enough to protect a neighborhood from the risks of social poverty.  

So well-off neighborhoods can be socially impoverished and poor neighborhoods can be socially rich. For example, the Amish, Hasidic Jews and enclaves of Somalis, Jamaicans, Vietnamese and other immigrant groups usually have little material wealth but enjoy strong cultural and familial bonds. These strong social ties help them find jobs, get advice on navigating school or applying for college and get to know neighbors. People help each other out, come together to manage difficulties and support each other’s efforts to move upward in society.  

Of course, some of our country’s economically poorest neighborhoods are also held back by their social poverty, which makes their challenges especially difficult to address. A strategy that focuses only on the material and the individual is unlikely to succeed.  

Q: Many philanthropists within the Roundtable donor community fund initiatives in their local communities as well as national organizations that may have local programs. In your book, you suggest philanthropists focus more on how local initiatives work if they want to see lasting change. What should they be looking for? 

Kaplan: My hope for “Fragile Neighborhoods” is that all Americans, regardless of wealth, would consider giving time and funding to local communities first. My recommendation is to donate to organizations that strengthen place-based social institutions—marriage, family, faith, interfamily, educational and communal—that are essential to human flourishing. Be strategic in which neighborhoods you select and in how you promote change in order to maximize the return on investment of giving.  

Some places will be much easier to enhance than others. Some initiatives will be much more likely to have a cascading effect on local dynamics than others. Understanding local contexts, how specific places relate to other places, and what elements of the social system are likely to have the biggest impact is essential.  

A concentrated focus on specific places, institutions and people is much more likely to yield results than any effort focused on a larger area or a wider set of problems. Tom Cousins, one of the philanthropists I profile in my book, discovered that his family foundation could achieve much more by working in one neighborhood than it could by funding many programs run by a wide range of organizations. Tom’s experience in real estate gave him a unique appreciation for the importance of place—and how a neighborhood could be transformed to offer its residents more opportunity with the right partnerships and investments. This led him to make a radical break with business as usual. 

Q: In “Fragile Neighborhoods,” you provide some operational lessons for practitioners, philanthropists and neighbors to reverse social decay in America. Can you share some of the ways readers can make a difference in their neighborhoods? 

Kaplan: I examine five leading-edge social entrepreneurs working to revitalize the relationships and social habitats across neighborhoods located everywhere from rural Kentucky to inner-city Detroit. These organizations don’t simply breeze into town, apply Band-Aid solutions and move on. Rather, they work hand in hand with local leaders and residents to strengthen the social institutions that have the most impact on people’s daily lives, like marriage, family structure, community and schools, and they work to develop and implement models that can be sustained and scaled up locally over time. In many cases, they focus on establishing social ties across groups that previously did not exist and redefining the social norms across locales that have divided society by race and social class. 

While every neighborhood is different, we can draw key lessons, including: 

  • Focus on kids—especially boys—because of the high return on investment compared to other initiatives. 
  • Strategically channel resources where they can have the broadest impact. 
  • Simultaneously target as many drivers of neighborhood health as you can. 
  • Establish early-warning systems that enable the prevention of problems before they grow. 
  • Make ample use of the right kind of data, focusing on the nature of relationships neighborhood by neighborhood and social group by social group. 
  • Look for ways to scale successful local efforts sideways to create neighborhood-based translocal national organizations. 
  • Look for ways to creatively engage religious organizations and values. 
  • Invest in economic revitalization, from the bottom up. 

As for individuals thinking about their own lives, let’s consider prioritizing family, children, community, neighborhood and local institutions more than we do currently. Let’s join the organizations that make up our social habitats: community-based associations, clubs, congregations, etc. rather than just joining national organizations or “connecting” with as many people as possible over social media. We can each do something local, something that contributes in a tangible—even if tiny—way to a real place and to real people.  

How can philanthropists be better stewards of our social investments? Place plus time. We need initiatives that slowly build up family, interfamily and neighborhood institutions as well as local leadership, capacity and wealth. Leaders and sponsors of these initiatives need an acute understanding of the local context, a long-term commitment and the flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances. This means thinking beyond silos and commonly used metrics. By going upstream to bolster relationships, we can build a prevention society—a strong society that helps every person and family thrive.  

If you are interested in learning more about building strong communities, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson.   

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