Community spirit in the age of Covid
COVID-19 has ushered in a renewed focus on community cohesion | Credit: University of Essex
Clapping for carers, sponsoring Tom Moore, wearing masks – have we been uniting as a nation, or is the truth more complicated?
Anecdotal evidence tells us that communities have been coming together in the last 18 months, with neighbours helping each other out, or shopping for those who are shielding. My research with my colleague James Laurence, though, suggests that people’s perceptions of neighbourliness have declined during Covid.
We used data from one of the world’s largest panel surveys to compare people’s lives before and during the early months of the pandemic, and found that the proportion of people who felt they could trust others in their neighbourhood fell from nearly 70% in 2014/15 to 56% in June 2020 – although by November 2020 it increased to 61%. The lockdown also seems to have made people feel more isolated, with a decline in whether people feel they are similar to others in their neighbourhood. In June 2020, only 45% of people felt similar to others living around them, 16% down on 2014/15. However, this also increased (to 50%) by November.
The data comes from Understanding Society, which follows over 100,000 UK residents and surveys them each year. Their Covid-19 survey, launched last year with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and The Health Foundation, allows for a detailed picture of the effect of the pandemic across the UK.
Some of what we knew about community spirit before the pandemic, though, was cause for cautious optimism. For some time now, policymakers have been committed to making communities more mixed. The Casey Review in 2016 suggested that problems such as extremism, prejudice, and inequality are made worse when people live in divided communities, and don’t interact with people from different backgrounds.
In fact, research shows that White, Asian and Black British people have shared aims. When we can afford it, we all typically look for the same thing, regardless of our background: a bigger house, in a ‘better’ area, with good schools and amenities. The trend is actually towards gradual de-segregation through social mobility – but there is less movement than there might be, and change is slow. The opportunities you have in the neighbourhood you grow up in will influence where you live later. Where you end up, in other words, is still very much shaped by where you start out.
And, in a country which wants to see less advantaged communities ‘levelling up’, social mobility is still, on average, more difficult to achieve for those from ethnic minority backgrounds compared to those from a white British background. This is despite the fact that educational achievement, traditionally seen as a vehicle to ‘getting on’, is higher among ethnic minorities. They still face disadvantages in the labour market, though, whether from immigrant generations or the generations who were born here – suggesting that there is still a lot to be done to achieve racial equality in particular.
More time at home made people feel less connected to others
The think tank Onward used Understanding Society as part of its work investigating the UK’s ‘social fabric’, and says recent decades have left many parts of the UK with “weak social institutions and networks and a falling sense of belonging”. Its research suggests that more affluent parts of the UK, such as the south of England, have stronger social fabric than less advantaged post-industrial towns – and that the Covid era has had a further effect, with young people in particular reporting a fall in their sense of connection to their local community.
This fits with my findings – that more time at home made people feel less connected to others, and that we need to build up community cohesion after the pandemic. However, the slow rise of positive attitudes towards the end of 2020 might also suggest that these attitudes are volatile, and may recover to pre-pandemic levels as restrictions are lifted.
Either way, it makes sense to ask what we can do to improve our sense of belonging and connection since we know that living in more cohesive neighbourhoods supports our mental health and wellbeing. Feeling more connected to others can protect us from the trauma of crises like the current one. Weakening cohesion may be eroding a pillar of support in people’s lives – especially in more disadvantaged areas which have been hit hard by Covid and need help the most.
There is evidence that the arts help to create a cohesive and sustainable society. As the government embarks on its plan to ‘build back better’, this could certainly be one of its focuses. Fostering a society in which engagement in the arts is encouraged, and accessible to everyone, could be an important way of countering the fractures and divisions in our economic, cultural, and political life.
We also know that volunteering is good for wellbeing, particularly for younger and lower income groups, who are also the least likely to volunteer. Creating meaningful volunteering opportunities could spread these benefits to those who need them most.
As government plans how the world will look post-Covid, and addresses the socio-economic impact in particular, it will be vital to remember that community cohesion is not a separate issue. Economic regeneration and social integration can be addressed together. That will mean long-term investment, institutional reform, decentralisation of power from Whitehall, and greater community involvement in decision-making. It also requires us to listen to evidence, often from the communities which need the greatest help.
To find out more about Understanding Society, please visit www.understandingsociety.ac.uk or contact the Policy and Partnerships Unit.