Social Connectedness

Despite national trends, levels of trust in our community and local government are on the rise

Social connectedness and trust — foundational to a well-functioning society — are on the rise in our region, though loneliness levels remain high. 

Why social connectedness matters to civic engagement in Houston

Social connectedness is the feeling of belonging — not only in the quality and quantity of our personal relationships, but also in our professional ones, our broader social network, our neighborhood, our community, and beyond (e.g., I’m from the Fifth Ward, I’m a Houstonian, I’m a Texan, I’m an American, I am a citizen of the world). It’s about having an identity, support system, and community — however that is defined — by the number of close friends we have, our familial relationships, our race or ethnicity, religion, gender identity, profession, alma mater, or even favorite sports team. It’s the sense of belonging and well-being we feel when we are members of a community, we trust society in general and our government, and we have people we can turn to for help.

People with high levels of social connectedness have strong support networks;1, 2 have better physical and mental health;3 are less likely to be derailed by negative or stressful events like job loss,4 death,5 or impacts from disasters;6, 7 and are less likely to die prematurely.8, 9 Social connectedness builds social trust — the feeling when you have faith that most people can be trusted — and is correlated with higher volunteer rates and charitable giving levels.10 At the society and economic level, macroeconomists have shown that as trust improves, economic prosperity grows.11 Ideally, we would all have high levels of trust for others in our community and in our government, but the degree to which we feel socially connected and trustful is affected by historical and present circumstances. Marginalized groups that have faced systemic inequities — like state-sanctioned racist or discriminatory policies — tend to have lower feelings of connectedness and trust.12, 13 This makes fostering collaboration and effecting positive change all the more difficult.

The more we understand the strengths and links among social networks across the three-county area, the more we can do to bridge gaps and foster the connections necessary to improve our region’s collective well-being and level of civic engagement.

The data

Access to civic and social organizations in Houston increases

Membership in civic and social organizations (non-profits, charities, advocacy groups, etc.) in our region is one of the best measures of social connectedness.14 Social connectivity is enhanced when people belong to volunteer groups and civic organizations because people who belong to such groups tend to trust others who belong to the same group.15

There are fewer organizations relative to the population in Houston’s three-county region than in Texas and the U.S. overall despite access steadily increasing in our region and declining at the state and national level. Across the three-county area, there are 3.2 civic and social organizations for every 100,000 residents, a figure that lags the state (5.2 per 100,000 residents) and nation (7.8 per 100,000 residents). 

Historically, Harris County has had the highest rate of civic and social organizations per 100,000 residents than Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, but in 2019, the rate in Montgomery County grew significantly and is now on par with Harris County. Fort Bend has the lowest rate with 2.0 civil-society organizations per 100,000 residents. 

Access to these organizations is critical, but whether we participate in them is a different measure of social connectedness.

According to data from the 2018 Houston Civic Health Index, about 35% of residents in Greater Houston say they participated in an organized group between 2013 and 2016. This is about two percentage points lower than the national average, though Greater Houston ranked 24th out of 50 large metro areas in the U.S.

Residents participated in religious organizations at a rate of 18.4%. This was followed closely by neighborhood and community groups. Greater Houston residents are comparatively more active in religious institutions and sports organizations compared to other large metros at 15th and 14th out of 50, respectively, but in each case, participation rates are less than one percentage point off from the national average.

Greater Houston residents are comparatively more active in religious institutions and sports organizations compared to other large metros at 15th and 14th out of 50, respectively

Feelings of loneliness affect more than half of Houstonians

The diversity, quality, and depth of our various social connections can protect us from feelings of isolation and loneliness. Our risk for loneliness is increased by lack of participation in social groups, among other behaviors.16 Loneliness is linked not only to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, but also physical health impacts.17 People with high rates of loneliness are more likely to experience heart disease and stroke,18 compromised immune systems,19, 20 and even premature death.21

Levels of loneliness are difficult to measure, but the industry-standard is the UCLA Loneliness Scale which uses a series of statements to calculate a loneliness score based on responses.22 As part of a national study, Cigna created a Loneliness Index based on a survey of this assessment.23 The index stipulates that the higher the score, the lonelier people are. Possible loneliness scores range from 20 to 80.

According to the Cigna Loneliness Index, the average loneliness score for the nine-county Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) ticked up slightly between 2018 and 2019, suggesting that Houstonians have not become significantly lonelier. Loneliness scores in Houston have been slightly higher than in the nation overall. 

According to the Cigna Loneliness Index and Survey, about 53% of Houstonians sometimes or always felt lonely in 2019 — about five percentage points higher than in 2018; and the share who felt they have people to talk to and are part of a group of friends declined about eight percentage points to 72% and 65%, respectively.

Nationally, the study found that younger generations are lonelier than older generations, individuals from low-income households are lonelier than their higher-income counterparts, and those living in rural areas are lonelier than those in urban and suburban communities.

The share of adults in Houston who felt they have people to talk to and are part of a group of friends declined about eight percentage points to 72% and 65%, respectively

Growing levels of trust in Harris County

Social trust is generally about having faith that most people in society play by the rules, the rules are fair and the same for everyone, and everyone has a fair shot to pursue the life they want. Established research has found that corruption,24 segregation,25 and economic inequality26 are the factors most closely linked to distrust, meaning as levels of corruption, segregation, and inequality fall, social trust will increase. More recently, research is emerging that suggests social trust is increasingly influenced by the degree of political polarization within a community.27

Countries that have high levels of social and government trust tend to have stronger democracies,28 richer economies,29 and better health.30 Neighborhoods that have high levels of social trust are more likely to work together on important projects to improve their community.31 However, the percentage of residents in the greater Houston area who report working with their neighbors to improve something in the neighborhood in 2018 (latest available) was 2.5 percentage points below the national average.32

Countries that have high levels of social and government trust tend to have stronger democracies, richer economies, and better health.

The 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey (KHAS) asked residents of Harris County whether most people can be trusted or whether you can’t be too careful with people, and 46% believe they can trust most of their neighbors. 

While 2020 data for Fort Bend and Montgomery counties aren’t available, historical data shows that levels of trust were on the rise after a dip in 2015. Between 2015 and 2018, residents’ level of trust has increased from 32% to 43% across the three-county area. Levels of trust in the U.S. overall appear to be higher than levels in our region. The Pew Research Center reported that 52% of Americans in 2018 believe that most people can be trusted — nine percentage points higher than in the Houston area. Levels of trust in 2018 were highest in Fort Bend County, which is also among the most racially/ethnically diverse in the nation.

Levels of trust differ by demographic characteristics. Asian American and white respondents who live in Harris County reported the highest levels of trust in the 2020 KHAS, whereas Black and Hispanic residents reported the lowest trust levels. Disparities in levels of trust by race/ethnicity — also evident in the 2018 survey and consistent with national trends — signal that more can be done to facilitate connectedness within and among our diverse communities. The low levels of trust by People of Color may be explained by historic and contemporary discrimination suffered by those groups.33 Black and Hispanic residents in Houston’s three-county region are more likely to live in low-income communities that tend to be less trusting as these neighborhoods have historically been marginalized and received limited public investment for community and economic development.34

Just over half of residents trust their local government

Social capital has been shown to influence the extent to which residents trust their government.35 When residents trust their governments to do the right thing and work in the best interest of our communities, they are more likely to comply with rules and policies, particularly during times of disasters or crisis.36

When asked whether their local government can be trusted to do what’s best for the community, Harris County residents responded mostly positively (56%) in 2019, a marginal increase since 2014. At the national level, public trust in the federal government remains low with only 17% of Americans who said they trust the government in Washington in 2019 to do what is right (in 2020, that rate jumped to 24%).

Historical data on the three-county region shows that the majority of residents in Harris and Fort Bend counties believed in 2014 that local government can be trusted to do what’s best. Montgomery County reported less trust with only 48.8% of residents responding they believe in local government to do what is best for the community.



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