We probably all know this, but in an increasingly economic world we make poverty to be something about money, or the lack of it.  Yet it’s more.  It’s one thing to lack capital, but it inevitably leads to a shortage of social capital as well.

In recent decades access to economic well-being has increasingly split our modern societies into two – better known as the haves and the have-nots.  That distinction has always been there, but in recent years it has become a wide chasm that few can cross.  That leads to making difficult choices or not being able to make any choices at all.

Increasingly, those being pushed to society’s margins find themselves not only economically bereft but socially struggling as well.  Regardless of how well they may feel connected digitally, in human terms they have never been more isolated.  They can be hyper-connected but more disconnected from their communities than ever. Worse, research reveals that are far more likely to feel alienated and lonely.  We are living in a time when society is no longer moving along a linear track together economically, but has divided into two groups – one moving ever upward and the other falling into decline.  Fewer and fewer families are remaining stable.

Recent data from the United States reveals that the number of citizens who have no friends at all has mushroomed exponentially.  Most of these fall into the category of low-income.  In 2005, one-quarter of Americans replied that they had no one to talk to about their poverty problems – a number triple what it was just 20 years earlier. They are rapidly running out of social capital – the ability to find support, hope and friendship with others – and are now facing entirely new kinds of poverty.

We have been so conditioned in the west to think of everything through the lens of economics, including poverty.  As a result, our understanding of the nature poverty has grown increasingly limited.  We fail to consider how it divides families, leads to mental illness or addictions, creates a vast array of physical problems, and results in entire populations of individuals and families dropping off the radar screens of policy makers.  And the moment the broader community loses touch with its more vulnerable members, the personal stories of those in need fall out of the popular lexicon.

Eventually things begin to fall apart.  The social capital surplus is rapidly used up and communities become divided.  But certain groups suffer disproportionalyl and frequently become trapped in cycles of poverty, depression, loss of opportunity and alienation.  The children of the well to do have far more opportunities to broaden their lives than those kids living in more confined circumstances.

The inability to afford post-secondary education presses down on people in poverty even further. A recent American study drove this home, as outlined by Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam:

“Of births to women with a high school diploma or less, 20 percent were out-of-wedlock in the 1970s; today, it is just shy of 70 percent.  However, nothing like this is happening for women with college degrees over the same period – their rate remains under 10 percent.”

This is revealing and significant.  It means that children born in such conditions are far more likely to fall into poverty, or remain in it, in a battle that could go on for generations – all because of a lack of opportunity..

Putnam reminds his students, the confidence and trust that existed in both Canada and the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s were part of a widely distributed social capital surplus.  Institutions helped to hold society together and provided venues where individuals from various economic and social strata encountered one another, developing relationships and working together to build the larger society.  “People were doing various things,” he recounted, “but they were doing them together.”

Not anymore.  Most often the middle and upper classes have little contact with those in difficult financial and social circumstances. Putnam makes a direct link between this social isolation and that meteoric increases in depression, malaise, even suicide. In the process, it leads to a mental health epidemic that remains little understood in modern societies but which is, thankfully, gaining more awareness.

There are various kinds of poverty, but as Mother Theresa would note: “The most terrible kind of poverty is loneliness.”  Now the lack of economic capital is now joining with the scarcity of social capital to create a new kind of poverty that is endemic and desperately isolating. Poverty in the midst of social isolation is the worst kind there is.