The Power of Social Capital in Advancing Family Economic Mobility

By Romuald Lenou Tassigne and Mary Goble    July 21, 2023

The human services sector is a critical lever to uplift children and families and foster their overall well-being. Similar to a power grid, it strives to lay down pathways to economic mobility for all and connect families to resources and supports like job training, food assistance, education, and other services such as child care and transportation. While this power grid electrifies the lives of many families by providing them access to resources, others have limited opportunities at their disposal which hinder their financial stability. Repairing and strengthening the network is essential to advance upward mobility for all. A path to reimagining the human services sector lies in leveraging existing resources.

Social capital is one of those critical but largely underused resources to ensure that the power grid of human services illuminates all households. In this blog post, we’ll explore the impact of social capital on upward mobility and discuss how human services agencies are leveraging it to support families’ economic mobility.

What is Social Capital?

The first use of the term “social capital” is attributed in 1916 to Hanifan, a State Supervisor of rural schools in West Virginia who conceptualized it as neighborhood associations. This concept has gained significance in social sciences and commonly refers to the “connection, networks, or relationships among people and the value that is derived from them and can be accessed or mobilized to help individuals succeed in life.”

There are two forms of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital refers to the ties that exist between family members and friends within an individual’s immediate network (people like me). On the other hand, bridging social capital deals with the ties that exist across community members (people that are different from me). Examples of social capital include but are not limited to, peer or group support, mentoring, family-strengthening efforts, faith-based supports, assistance navigating systems, and connections with others.

In the human services sector, social capital is a critical element of economic and upward mobility. That is, families experiencing poverty who build relationships and interact with families who have high incomes show significantly better chances of moving out of poverty. This can happen by alleviating income and housing segregation, integrating neighborhoods, and breaking down class barriers, thus providing families with low incomes with better employment opportunities (Chetty et al., 2022).

Social Capital and Economic Mobility

Upward mobility, the ability of children to have a chance at economic success no matter their background, has been declining over the last half-century. As Opportunity Insights found, more than 90% of children born in the 1940s grew up to earn more than their parents, but over the last 50 years only half of children grow up to earn more than their parents. Comparatively, Black Americans have much lower rates of upward mobility and higher rates of downward mobility than White Americans, leading to large income disparities that persist across generations. Drawing on this sobering evidence, it is critical to turn that tide by leveraging social capital across social determinants of health (SDOH) including housing, education, health, and employment to propel families out of poverty and foster their social and economic mobility.

Human services agencies have implemented innovative interventions as they leverage social capital to advance economic mobility. Seattle-area housing authorities, for instance, established Creating Moves to Opportunities (CMTO). This program is designed to support housing stability for families experiencing poverty, with Family or Housing Navigators providing housing information, connecting them with landlords and real estate agents, and offering financial assistance so families with low incomes can move to higher-cost-of-living neighborhoods and engage with people of higher incomes and different backgrounds. Those Family and Housing Navigators establish peer support structures connecting individuals and families to resources to foster their economic and social mobility.

Similarly, in the educational space, a recent study by Chetty et al., 2023 shows how colleges are also an engine of economic and upward mobility by increasing the representation of students from low- and middle-income households in elite and private schools where they connect and build trust with students from higher-income households. For example, academic institutions, primarily community colleges and adult education programs, have established peer mentorships programs to provide emotional support, help connect students to support services, and establish those mentor-mentee relationships to foster social capital, which is indispensable for sharing information, accessing employment resources, and consequently achieving economic and social mobility. Summarily, social capital is essential to economic mobility as it creates opportunities and conditions for information exchange along three key dimensions: structural, cognitive, and relational.

Social Capital Dimension



Overall patterns of relationships within organizations


Modes of sharing information and knowledge within organizations


Quality of information between members based on normative features such as trust, reciprocity, and group identification

Social Capital in Human Services

While many social capital building initiatives rely on community-based action, there is a role that government agencies can play. Human services agencies are well positioned to leverage social capital to cultivate service delivery systems that are truly human-centered and community-driven and connect individuals with resources to foster their overall well-being.

Supporting Job Search Assistance and Economic Mobility

In terms of economic mobility, social capital can advance families’ quests for employment. That is, human services agencies can facilitate opportunities for program participants to develop social networks and connections with individuals and organizations. Chetty et al., 2022 describe this important element as “economic connectedness and exposure” which is designed to address “friending bias”—likelihood that people with low incomes form friendships with people with high income who they’re exposed to. This structural dimension of social capital is instrumental because, through those connections, families with low incomes can receive economic opportunities via referrals and professional networking.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, McDonald (2015) found that individuals who used their social networks to search for jobs experienced significantly higher wage returns in comparison to those who found employment on their own. By the same token, social capital provides access to exclusive information about job openings which reduces the competition in the labor market. Furthermore, job turnover is lower for individuals with strong neighborhood ties (Sou, Yuen, & Chen, 2022). With that in mind, human services agencies such as Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) administrators can also leverage social networks to strengthen their job search strategies for program participants.

Likewise, social capital and social networks are even more critical for individuals who were formerly incarcerated—individuals whose families and friends might be reluctant to offer referrals. Social capital can also be pivotal in the child support space as parents with low incomes who are paying support may struggle with unemployment given their limited opportunities from social contacts (Patel, 2016). Individuals with low incomes who work non-standard hours or who are self-employed often experience social isolation that hinders their ability to develop social networks and participate in informal peer network events that often come with a traditional nine-to-five job. In each of these cases, human services agencies are ideally situated to facilitate opportunities that build social capital. In addition to job search assistance, social capital is also valuable for case management.

Improving Mentoring and Case Management

Social capital supports upward and economic mobility through mentoring and case management across human services sectors. In the child welfare space, social capital reduces child maltreatment rates by sharing information and enhancing the focus on community care of children. This relational dimension of social capital empowers children and families involved in the child welfare system, including foster youth, to build and sustain long-term relationships with case managers and mentors who can facilitate those connections in their neighborhoods to sustain them once they exit the system. Since case managers play a key role in connecting individuals to resources, it is essential for child welfare staff to leverage social capital in trauma-informed settings.

Increasing Food Access

Food insecurity affects 37 million in the United States and disproportionately burdens women and older adults; the limited access to nutritious food hinders upward mobility. To address food insecurity and boost mobility, human services can leverage social capital (relational dimension) by connecting families to food banks and other food aid organizations, and local churches. As Leddy et al., 2020 study points out, households with low income living in communities with high social capital were 53% less likely to experience hunger than households living in communities with low social capital.

Uncovering Promising Practices with Social Capital

Social capital is impactful across SDOH and the human services sector. Agencies have been intentional in how they leverage it to uplift individuals and families. Here are some promising examples in that space.



Social Capital Intervention

Minnesota Department of Human Services


Human services agency that nurtures social capital with tribal nations by partnering with trusted community organizations to embed educational programming about making healthy choices into local events and community spaces.

Massachusetts Springfield Works

Head Start and 2Gen Approach

This nonprofit agency establishes organic cohorts through a 2Gen Approach lens of parents in Head Start and leverages social capital by providing them with parenting skills and career and workforce readiness certificates.

Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care

Coordinated Family and Community Engagement (CFCE)

This statewide program, initially launched in 2001, provides child development services and resources to families with young children regardless of economic status. The program established a Family Engagement Project to foster social capital between staff and parents, including families with limited English proficiency by inviting them to the local library to share their life experiences and parental challenges related to their children.

Up Together

Up Together Detroit Initiative

This cross-sector collaborative invites families experiencing poverty to enroll in a peer cohort to form relationships, connections, and social capital to solve common problems.

Parent Child Center of Rutland County

Whole Family Approach and Child Center

This initiative leverages social capital to provide wraparound services, including education and economic opportunities, customized programming, and individual case management for each program.

Social capital is instrumental in connecting individuals and families to services and resources and supporting their economic mobility. Because social capital impacts job search assistance, mentoring and case management, early childhood development, and food access, it is incumbent on human services agencies to establish, maintain, and promote institutional structures where program participants can engage their peers and other entities, including people across socioeconomic boundaries (bonding and bridging social capital). Likewise, social capital has positive outcomes such as job stability, wage growth, food security, higher educational outcomes, and health benefits. An additional benefit is that by leveraging social capital, human services agencies create a culture of belonging, learning, and well-being while cultivating service delivery systems through a human-centered and community-based approach. Thus, social capital can go a long way in fostering family economic mobility.

Additional Resources:

Chetty, R., Jackson, M. O., Kuchler, T., Stroebel, J., Hiller, A., Oppenheimer, S., & The Opportunity Insights. (2022). Social Capital I: Measurement and association with economic mobility.  

Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (2023). Coordinated Family and Community Engagement (CFCE) network. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (2020). Common Principles and Emerging Practices in Social Capital (

Solari, Claudia D., Aaron R. Williams, Gregory Acs, Lily Robin, Tina Chelidze, Gabriel Morrison, Vivian Zheng, et al. 2023. “Measuring Upward Mobility in Counties and Cities across the US.” Washington DC: Urban Institute.

University of North Carolina. (2020). Networks that Work. Three episode podcast discusses emerging practices for building social capital with people of lived experiences. Strategies range from using peer groups, technology, and supportive services.

About the Authors

Romuald Lenou Tassigne, MPA (Full Bio)

Research Associate
American Public Human Services Association (APHSA)

Mary Goble (Full Bio)

Senior Project Associate, Knowledge Mobilization
American Public Human Services Association (APHSA)

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