The Arts, Culture, & Social Well-Being

Posted by Mark Stern, May 03, 2012 0 comments

Mark Stern

Mark Stern

As part of its collaboration with The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) and the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy (OACCE), Penn’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) is leading an effort to develop an index of livability/social inclusion for the city.

Our goal is to create a series of maps that identify several dimensions of social well-being across the city and to locate the arts and culture within the broader idea of social well-being. This semester, Ira Goldstein of TRF and I have co-taught an Urban Studies seminar focused of clarifying the conceptualization of social well-being and gathering the data necessary to create the index.

The project was inspired by the federal government’s—including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)—recent interest in promoting livability. As we looked at the question, we realized that our measure needed to move beyond livability to include more comprehensive measures of social justice, inclusion, and well-being. Rather than start from scratch, we used the 2009 report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress as our starting point.

The commission proposed an eight-dimension framework for social well-being that included material standard of living, health, education, personal activities (including work and leisure), political voice and governance, social connections and relationships, environment, and economic and physical insecurity. Our first adaptation of the framework was to add housing as a separate dimension, giving us nine potential sub-indexes.

During the seminar, Ira, the students, and I have been able to develop preliminary version of seven of the nine indexes. Some of them were easier than others.

Material standard of living, which focuses on levels of income and wealth, was the easiest because the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provided extensive data at the census tract level. All of the other indexes required us to incorporate other data sources, ranging from the city’s vital statistics data to estimates of workplace injuries, residents’ involvement in their neighborhoods, and reported crime.

In many respects, this preliminary estimate of social well-being is deeply depressing. Although we have a commitment to move “beyond GDP” in estimating well-being, the data demonstrates that other dimensions of inclusion are strongly related to income and wealth.

For example, our measure of education includes broad measures of educational attainment, elementary school’s standardized test scores, and truancy. In an ideal world, educational opportunities would counter existing social inequality by providing a path for social mobility. However, in Philadelphia today, educational opportunity is limited. A neighborhood’s economic status is a very good predictor of its educational opportunity.

From the standpoint of arts and culture, our estimate of social connection and relationships in the city has been most provocative. Here again, we have a dimension of social well-being that is not easy to measure. Ultimately, our index included measures of neighborliness (whether residents feel that they trust their neighbors or feel like they “belong”), civic participation, the presence of social organizations, and some demographic characteristics (percent of single person households, residential mobility).

The analysis produced two sub-indexes of social connection. One index was associated with neighborliness, for example, whether you trust your neighbors or participate in local organizations.

The other index is primarily associated with demographic characteristics like single person households and high rates of residential mobility and with the presence of social organizations in a neighborhood.

Although some measures of cultural engagement are associated with neighborliness, the primary index—what we call the cultural asset index (CAI) –is more closely associated with the second sub-index.

It’s too early to draw definite conclusions from these data. However, these two dimensions of social connection do appear to line up with the classic sociological distinction between community (or as the Germans say, gemeinschaft) and society (or gesellschaft), or the distinction between a social order based on face-to-face relationship and one based on a set of institutional intermediaries.

It turns out as well that the social connection index most closely associated with cultural engagement is one of our measures least associated with economic standing. This reinforces the idea that the arts and culture’s role in social connection cuts across social class boundaries.

The map of the culturally-related measure of social connection reflects this diversity. Several well-off neighborhoods in Center City have high social connection scores, but so do some middle- and low-income neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, Germantown, and West Philadelphia.

Cultural engagement often reflects socioeconomic standing, but is ultimately much more complicated.

In the months ahead, TRF and SIAP will complete the first version of its livability/social inclusion index.  We still need to create sub-indexes for environment and political voice (while our state legislature is trying to suppress voting with an ID law), and we’ll certainly want to refine the work that the students have begun.

In the end, we’ll provide a solid empirical foundation for looking at the contours of cultural engagement and how it is associated with other aspects of livability and social inclusion in the city.

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