“I want to be like her”: The role of bonding social capital among unmarried mothers enrolled in a place-based initiative program
Social capital, or resources derived from positive social ties, is well-documented as a means of lifting individuals from low-income and economically marginalized (LIEM) backgrounds out of poverty (e.g., Crul et al., 2017; Dominguez & Watkins, 2003). However, research on using social capital as an intervention to improve economic mobility primarily focuses on a "top-down" approach via bridging social capital interventions, or the benefits of social capital for one’s upward economic mobility when social networks are comprised of diverse individuals outside of their networks, such that information flow from those with more resource access to those with access to fewer resources can occur (Claridge, 2013; Narayan, 1999; Sørensen, 2016). While this deficit approach has dominated psychological research, less research has examined the utility and mobilization of bonding social capital or resources embedded in networks of LIEM individuals and its impacts on upward economic mobility. This study adopted a mixed-method approach to understand if and how the resources derived from social connections (i.e., bonding social capital) between mother participants in a program specifically designed to facilitate peer-to-peer relationship-building opportunities via group workshops, group retreats, and sister circles were linked to indicators of upward economic mobility (i.e., changes in earnings, savings, and debts). Particularly, this study grew out of a multi-year effort examining mothers' experiences participating in the twelve-month Moms Moving Forward (MMF) program, an intervention established in 2020 and designed to improve economic mobility, disrupt intergenerational poverty, and support unmarried mothers residing in a historically marginalized area of Charlotte, North Carolina. Analyses of post-program survey data (N=18) with program completers from two cohorts revealed overall high levels of bonding social capital among the participants. In addition, while the study’s small sample size requires caution in drawing conclusions based on these preliminary findings, mothers’ reports of bonding social capital within the group accounted for 38.4% of the variance related to their gains in earnings over the course of the program; bonding social capital did not relate to changes in the mothers’ savings or debts. An applied thematic analysis of interviews with a subsample of program completers (n=9) supported and extended our understanding of these quantitative findings, with participants reporting that while it was initially difficult to trust other group members, frequent program meetings, among other program processes, helped to build in-group trust and establish connections that ultimately served as a resource throughout their time in the program. While some participants voiced variation in their experiences, most interviewees described how other cohort members served as role models/motivators as well as resources from whom they could gain insight on professional and career goals and identify strategies for getting by and completing day-to-day tasks via social learning opportunities. To our knowledge, this is one of the first studies to explore the role of bonding social capital in advancing economic outcomes using a mixed methods approach. Collectively, these findings help further our understanding of the utility of bonding social capital among unmarried mothers from LIEM backgrounds and inform future programs and research.