Cover photo by Megan Bucknall via Unsplash
The RGK Center recently released a data brief outlining the results of the 2020 Austin Area Sustainability Indicators (A2SI) survey around social capital indicators in Austin. The research, which is funded in part by St. David’s Foundation, will be used to inform programs and policies for Austin residents.
“These briefs are meant to start a conversation, and this one is a great addition to the conversation of what social capital looks like in the Austin area,” says recent LBJ and CRP graduate, Jessica Jones, who worked on the project with the A2SI team.
St. David’s often uses community data to inform their grantmaking and funding strategies, taking data from sources like the census and the American Community Survey. Jesse Simmons, Senior Evaluation Officer at St. David’s Foundation, explains that the data collected by A2SI is the only survey they’ve found to collect data points specifically on social connection, which includes levels of trust, bonding networks, and neighborhood cohesion.
“We use this data because one of our core beliefs is that information networks of support are just as important for health and wellness as services through nonprofits,” says Simmons. “We feel like helping to facilitate connections between people is key to improving the health of our community.”
A2SI data collection started in 2002, and since 2015 the team has analyzed the relationship between social capital, health outcomes, and climate preparedness in the Austin area. The data consistently shows the positive relationship between higher levels of social capital and these outcomes.
"Rather than build a narrative we had to find one and ensure that the story we were conveying was statistically accurate and represented in a socially responsible manner," said Auva Shariatmadari, a recent graduate of the political communications undergraduate program at UT Austin. " I realized how important survey information is in the community feedback process, as well as the level of responsibility placed on those managing and communicating the findings."
In the brief that was released this spring, the A2SI research team found a decline in neighborhood cohesion and trust levels, as compared to 2018, though Black respondents reported higher levels of trust overall. Despite being collected during a pandemic, the 2020 data revealed an increase in bonding networks, (i.e. visiting your neighbors, borrowing and lending things), specifically within Hispanic populations.
“There is not one story that captures everybody in their experience of social capital, but by looking at these sub-groups, you start seeing differences,” explains Jessica Jones. “That’s our bread and butter at A2SI,” Jones continues. “That’s where we can start highlighting these narratives so that community partners, organizations, and elected leaders can really dig deeper into what is causing the change."
The analysis they pull from trends over time can be helpful in determining trends that might inform policies or programs to support areas of Austin. For example, if an area is experiencing a decline in cohesion or trust, one cause might be neighbors moving in and out often, potentially a sign of residential displacement pushing people out of their neighborhoods.
The data in this brief was collected through phone surveys in 2020, which was not only the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic but also a presidential election year.
“We have a confluence of a crazy election season, pandemic, and a lack of trust and fear in one another and fear of the unknown that might have been shaping these responses,” Jones says. However, she explains, when we might expect that to be reflected in a lack of bonding networks, we see the opposite reflected in the data.
LBJ School professor Dr. Patrick Bixler explains that the A2SI survey isn’t designed to allow researchers to isolate causal effects to specific drivers of change, such as a pandemic or presidential election, in outcomes of social capital. Though COVID-19 was a “wildcard” in their 2020 data collection, they found the results to be in line with what they would expect based on previous years’ survey data.
“Although COVID upended life for everyone, and likely led to feelings of social isolation for many, it also increased neighborliness and neighborhood cohesions,” Dr. Bixler explains, adding that in this case the two ends of the spectrum averaged out in the 2020 data. “In many ways, crisis can bring out the best in people.”
St. David’s Foundation has already used the findings of A2SI data like this to inform program decisions and funding to innovative programs like UpTogether. This program provides funds directly to families, who develop their own goals and use the money how they determine is best. Jesse Simmons explains that the team used A2SI data surrounding social capital and other indicators to support their decision to invest in this innovative project, which he describes as a “flip on traditional philanthropy.”
Other programs supported by this data include the work St. David’s does with older adults and social isolation, helping them to age in place within their communities.
"This project reminded me how much I enjoy the mathematical side of research and the importance of it in data communication," said Auva Shariatmadari of her time working on the project. "People don't realize how multidisciplinary social science research is, and I am very grateful that I was able to expand my skill set to be able to work with data in its collection, analysis, and communication phases."