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Briefing paper


• Social capital is defined as ‘networks, together with the shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups’. Social capital theory proposes that social networks and norms play a role in influencing the social and economic development of communities.

• Australia is relatively well endowed with social capital, experiencing high rates of volunteering and civic involvement in comparison to most developed countries. Some elements of social capital appear to be declining in Australia (e.g. trust, church attendance), while other elements are stable or increasing.

• Social capital is rarely uniformly high or low in Australian communities, with most regions displaying strengths and weaknesses in terms of the social capital indicators.

• Where a person lives has a significant influence on the social capital resources that are available to them. Aspects of social capital relating to community connections and financial support vary considerably across Australia’s regions. Other important aspects of social capital — such as satisfaction with family relationships and the availability of emotional support — are not particularly dependent on place of residence.

• The most important geographic influence on the social capital indicators is the size of the urban centre in which a person lives. Remoteness and State/Territory of residence also have a significant influence on several of the social capital indicators.

• The paper proposes two summary measures of social capital for Australia’s regions. Community involvement is measured using indicators of volunteering, active membership, neighbours helping each other out, and integration into the community. General support is measured using indicators of feelings of loneliness, health barriers to social participation, the availability of emotional support, and financial support.

• Individuals who live in rural areas and small towns display very high levels of community involvement. The major metropolitan centres display relatively low community involvement. Community involvement is similar to the national average for urban centres with populations of between 20000 and 1 million.

• There is a relatively low level of general support in some of Australia’s more remote regions. The capital cities contain a mix of regions with high and low general support.

• While the evidence regarding social capital’s effects is most convincing at the scale of the individual, the international literature also provides evidence that social capital is associated with improved health, education and life satisfaction outcomes and reduced crime and disadvantage at the regional scale. The causality of such relationships has not been clearly established.

• The international literature provides mixed evidence as to whether a relationship exists between social capital and regional economic growth. In the Australian context, a region’s recent economic growth rate is not significantly associated with any of the core elements of social capital.

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