Ever wonder what is going on in those small communities you drive through on your way to someplace else? Well a lot, it so happens…
This kind of social cohesion, where neighbours act like family, is an asset as valuable as money. Often referred to as ‘social capital’, these human connections within small communities operate as an alternate economy. Social capital exists everywhere there are relationships between people, yet the differences between rural and urban contexts are striking. In the city it’s possible to find almost anything you need for sale at a defined price, most of it nearby—or even through an app. In rural settings goods and services may be sparse and not visible by storefront or advertisement. Instead, it’s common to find that your child’s teacher is also your hairdresser’s daughter who is the wife of the local hen keeper and egg seller. Friendship and service mix and mingle in the invisible networks of small town life.
Image: The scale and sometimes isolated nature of rural communities facilitates social capital, where community members share resources with one another. Photo credit: Abra Brynne.
Social capital has been studied and defined in recent decades by academics and community development professionals striving to create greater community resilience. The importance of being able to bounce back after a local crisis is equally appreciated in both city and country settings. As threats of floods and fires become more real, it’s nice to know that rural communities may have advantages and hidden knowledge that can help protect us—and that others can learn from. This is a pleasant change from the stereotypes of rural people and places being backwards and needing a hand up. However experts acknowledge that attempting to measure a complex web of relationships is difficult because there is no such thing as a standardized unit of social capital.
Long before the language of “asset mapping” was coined, such inventories were known and held in the social fabric of small communities, to be drawn upon at need. When someone requires help ploughing a field, everyone knows who can drive the team of horses or the tractor; when the mountain comes down with a mudslide, community members spring into action to ensure that everyone is safe and that the communal water systems can continue to provide for daily and irrigation needs; when a new baby is on the way, care of the elder children is a given, as well as casseroles and knitted clothes. For many this is a historical phenomenon, but for numerous others this is the reality of present day rural life. In small communities, everyone knows your business—but they also know and can help meet your needs in ways that will never be captured by measurements like the Gross Domestic Product.
Even if we cannot quantify or estimate the worth of informal economies on a spreadsheet, to those living in rural communities their effect is priceless and palpable. As they say, ‘not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.’ It is important to recognize that although average household income in rural places is typically far below the amount in urban settings,[i] and higher income levels do correlate positively with better health outcomes,[ii] poverty and quality of life can be subjective experiences. For example, one may drive an older vehicle but that’s normal if you are surrounded by neighbours who also drive older vehicles. And when the local gift store has homemade decorations and there are no excessive displays of holiday adornment anywhere in your town, many people can feel the spirit of a special season no matter their finances. When we think about income inequality or income distribution (often measured as the Gini coefficient), in rural areas the gap between the rich and the poor may close substantially.[iii] It can be a comfort in the economically flatter landscape of rural life to see that your neighbours live in simple houses like you do and that in many communities, fancy clothes are reserved for graduations and weddings.
Image: Though incomes in rural areas of Canada are, on average, lower than those in cities, many people who choose to live in rural communities see the social connections and mutual interdependence fostered within those communities as valuable in its own right. Photo credit: Abra Brynne.
Communities have always been established where the necessities of life could be found. No human settlement survived historically if our essential needs could not be met close at hand. Another vital aspect of viable communities was the correct mix of skills and tools. ‘The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker’ provided protein and baked goods to complement the vegetables and fruit harvested in the field and eaten by candlelight. Rural and remote communities continue to thrive based on the mix of skills and equipment available. When the closest Canadian Tire is a four-hour drive one way, it is necessary to draw on the ingenuity and tools at home and amongst one’s neighbours to meet the current need.
While income and poverty levels are useful and sometimes vital statistics to understand how we can best support those who need help in our communities to truly thrive, they only capture a part of the picture of what makes a community and the individuals who reside there truly healthy. Social cohesion and the relationships that develop and deepen over time have long been identified—justly so—as one of the key indicators of health.
Abra Brynne is the Executive Director of the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council and has lived rurally most of her life, currently in the unceded territory of the Sinixt and Ktunaxa.
[i] Singh, V. (2002). Rural income disparities in Canada: A comparison across the provinces. Rural and Small Town Canada Analysis Bulletin, 3(7).
[ii] Muntaner, C. et al (2012). Better Health: An analysis of public policy and programming focusing on the determinants of health and health outcomes that are effective in achieving the healthiest populations. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Health Services Research Foundation.