Perverse Social Capital - Some Evidence from Colombia

By Rubio, Mauricio | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1997 | Go to article overview
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Perverse Social Capital - Some Evidence from Colombia


Rubio, Mauricio, Journal of Economic Issues


Once again, education is at the heart of the economic debate in Latin America. Low investment in human capital has been identified as one of the main obstacles to growth for South American countries. As well, an increase in problems, such as juvenile delinquency, has been attributed to deficiencies in human and social capital.

Three ideas are to be presented in this paper: the first is that social capital, understood as a set of elements that facilitates exchange and reinforces human capital, is not invariably a "productive" asset that favors society's economic efficiency. It is possible to conceive of perverse social capital as detrimental to economic efficiency and the welfare of society. The second idea is that perverse social capital is manifested in the reward structure that predominates in society through alterations in the traditional relationship between education and income. Finally, it is argued that if decisions to invest in human capital are determined by the way that young people perceive this relationship, then the so-called "youth problems" are merely the result of the decisions young people made in their own interests given the current reward structure.

This work is divided into three parts. The first is a critique of the theories that explain delinquency as the result of deficiencies in social capital, and here the concept of perverse social capital is introduced. The second part shows Colombia as an example of a society in which two types of social capital coexist. In particular, the evolution of these two types (the productive and the perverse) are analyzed for Antioquia, the region of Colombia where this coexistence is most striking. The third section is dedicated to an analysis of the relationship between education and income in Colombia and a brief description of juvenile delinquency.

Deficiencies in Social Capital

A new trend is becoming apparent among those who study crime in North American urban centers, one that purports to explain crime, and especially juvenile delinquency, as the result of deficiencies in social capital [Patrinos 1995]. The argument is based on the idea that social capital, which facilitates the transfer of values, is a necessary element to guarantee a return on education. It is not sufficient that youths are educated. Their families, communities, friends, and contacts must reinforce the perception of the benefits of investing in human capital. Thus, decisions to drop out of school, take a job, or turn to criminal activities can be understood as symptoms of deteriorating social capital.

With this focus, the chain of causality that leads to delinquency begins with inadequacies in the family that, aggravated by poverty, lead youths to drop out of school and look for jobs; the tight labor market makes it difficult to earn enough in legal employment, which leads the young to opt for shady alternatives. The faults in social capital push youths into delinquency.

Although the extensive empirical literature validating a social capital approach to delinquency refers almost exclusively to the United States, there has been an uncritical attempt to generalize it to explain criminal behavior in other societies. The main weakness in the theory is that it excludes the possibility that in some societies formal and traditional education can yield a low return on investment for some segments of the population, and therefore formal education may be a bad deal. Where crime is both profitable and low-risk, it is easy to predict that many individuals will be inclined to indulge in criminal activity. It is even conceivable that the families, friends, neighbors, contacts, and networks of these individuals - all the elements that make up social capital - will end up approving and reinforcing this kind of decision.

To explain juvenile delinquency in Colombia as a deficiency in social capital has serious limitations. In this country, the principal centers of juvenile crime are not found in the most socially and economically backward regions - quite the opposite; they are located in the most industrialized cities, which are precisely those with the greatest opportunities for education and employment.

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