Ties that Bind (and Social Distance): How Social Capital Helps Communities Weather the COVID-19 Pandemic
35 Pages Posted: 4 May 2020 Last revised: 13 Aug 2020
Date Written: May 4, 2020
Why have the effects of COVID-19 been so unevenly geographically distributed in the United States? This paper investigates the role of social capital as a mediating factor for the spread of the virus. On one hand, higher social capital could imply greater in-person interaction and risk of contagion. On the other hand, because social capital is associated with greater trust and relationships within a community, it could endow individuals with a greater concern for others, thereby leading to more hygienic practices and social distancing. Using data for over 2,700 US counties, we investigate how social capital explains the level and growth rate of infections. We find that moving a county from the 25th to the 75th percentile of the distribution of social capital would lead to a 18% and 5.7% decline in the cumulative number of infections and deaths, as well as suggestive evidence of a lower spread of the virus. Our results are robust to many demographic characteristics, controls, and alternative measures of social capital. Finally, we discuss the channels through which social capital makes communities better able to respond to outbreaks.
Keywords: coronavirus, COVID-19, public health, social capital, social distancing, trust
JEL Classification: E71, I12, I18, I31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation