Rebuilding America: An Investment in Social Capital

TPOHStaff

With the advent of modern transportation, community certainly extends beyond the boundaries of one’s home, so it shouldn’t be a great surprise that the percentage of adults who say they spend a social evening with a neighbor at least several times a week fell to 19 percent in 2016 from 30 percent in 1974.

No longer is this country based on loving they neighbor, but perhaps neighborliness is a lost art in need of a renaissance.

That’s the gist of a new report just released by the Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill. “What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America,” is part of the Social Capital Project, run by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

Its stated purpose?

The Social Capital Project is a multi-year research effort that will investigate the evolving nature, quality, and importance of our associational life. ‘Associational life’ is our shorthand for the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations. These institutions are critical to forming our character and capacities, providing us with meaning and purpose, and for addressing the many challenges we face.
The goal of the project is to better understand why the health of our associational life feels so compromised, what consequences have followed from changes in the middle social layers of our society, why some communities have more robust civil society than others, and what can be done — or can stop being done — to improve the health of our social capital. Through a series of reports and hearings, it will study the state of the relationships that weave together the social fabric enabling our country — our laws, our institutions, our markets, and our democracy — to function so well in the first place.

The first report from the project is a bit dispiriting. While Americans are much more materially better off, the social fabric is frayed, fractured, and seemingly coming apart. At risk is pretty much the social norms that allow a middle class and the sustainability of a “free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country.”

Some of the findings in the report reveal that social capital is dropping because Americans are spending less time socializing with neighbors, declining to vote, and lacking in trust of fellow Americans (from 46 percent in 1972, the report to 31 percent in 2016, according to the General Social Survey).

Political columnist Ramesh Ponnuru points out some exceptions raised in the report.

Rates of volunteering have increased. Some kinds of political engagement have also risen: The percentage of the population that reports having tried to influence someone else’s vote has gone up over the last few decades. The overall story, though, is one of fewer and weaker interpersonal connections among Americans.

Social scientists Charles Murray, who testified to the Joint Economic Committee this week, described the impact of a decline in social capital: fewer people are getting married and fewer men are working. He said that the government can try to find policies to encourage behavioral changes, but the declines are symptoms of a larger, more visceral problem.

If I had to pick one theme … it is the many ways in which people (behave) impulsively — throwing away real opportunities — and unrealistically — possessing great ambitions but oblivious to the steps required to get from point A to point B to point C to point D in life.

In other words, the desire for instant gratification has its consequences. Another problem he cited is a general self-destruction created by the squandering of an ample number of opportunities to get ahead.

The solution?

It comes down to the age-old problem of getting people, especially young people, not to do things that are attractive in the short term but disastrous in the long term and, conversely, to do things that aren’t fun right now but that will open up rewards later in life. The problem is not confined to any socioeconomic class. The mental disorder known as adolescence afflicts rich and poor alike. And adolescence can extend a long time after people have left their teens. The most common way that the fortunate among us manage to get our priorities straight — or at least not irretrievably screw them up — is by being cocooned in the institutions that are the primary resources for generating social capital: a family consisting of married parents and active membership in a faith tradition.
I didn’t choose my phrasing lightly. I am not implying that single parents are incapable of filling this function — millions of them are striving heroically to do so — nor that children cannot grow up successfully if they don’t go to church. With regard to families, I am making an empirical statement: As a matter of statistical tendencies, biological children of married parents do much better on a wide variety of important life outcomes than children growing up in any other family structure, even after controlling for income, parental education, and ethnicity. With regard to religion, I am making an assertion about a resource that can lead people, adolescents and adults alike, to do the right thing even when the enticements to do the wrong thing are strong: a belief that God commands them to do the right thing. I am also invoking religion as a community of faith … For its active members, a church is far more than a place that they to worship once a week. It is a form of community that socializes the children growing up in it in all sorts of informal ways, just as a family socializes children.

Murray said his ideas are not meant to generate policy recommendations, but more a warning.

I would argue that it is not a matter of ideology but empiricism to conclude that unless the traditional family and traditional communities of faith make a comeback, the declines in social capital that are already causing so much deterioration in our civic culture will continue and the problems will worsen. The solutions are unlikely to be political but cultural. We need a cultural Great Awakening akin to past religious Great Awakenings.

Will the social capital project be able to trigger a “Great Awakening”? Perhaps not, but a disconnect in society will most certainly cause bigger problems that will ultimately cause a larger breakdown that will rely on homegrown gumption to fix.

As Ponnuru explains, a return to the aspirational nature of social capital may require a “rediscovery of Tocqueville.”

Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another. … In order that men remain civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them.”

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