Turn on a computer or a television to get the news and the first story you’re likely to read is about President Trump and his feuds. But as Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson notes, the real news—the stuff that affects your life—takes place outside the White House. “The nation’s future,” he writes, “hangs on larger economic and social trends that no president can shape.”
Samuelson was commenting on this report from the Joint Economic Committee on the state of America’s “social capital”—the amount of time that people spend with others, either in families, at work, in a church or synagogue, or in the community. In an interview with The Atlantic, Sen. Mike Lee said that while the Joint Economic Committee had a lot of information about the state of America’s economy, it didn’t have very much information on America’s civil society.
“We have a lot of metrics by which we gauge the health of the economy and the health of the government,” Sen. Lee said. “There are other things that reflect the health of the country in one way or another that aren’t so frequently measured and even less frequently discussed by policymakers.”
Sen. Lee hired a staff to investigate social capital, including Scott Winship, who formerly worked for Brookings, the Manhattan Institute, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The report Winship and his team produced, What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America, is well-written, fair-minded, and not partisan.
As the authors note, there’s a lot of debate over what, exactly, is social capital and how it differs from economic capital. Can you save or invest social capital? Are ordinary business transactions parts of social capital? When I go across the street to have my hair cut or pick up my dry cleaning and I chat, am I building up social capital?
What is clear from the report is that the idea of “social capital” is one that has been important for over 30 years. It first came to the fore in an effort by the American Enterprise Institute in the 1970's and 1980's, as AEI published Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus’s To Empower People, and also commissioned a series of reports on the “mediating structures” between the individual and the state. Social capital also plays a key role in the ideas of Elinor Ostrom, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.
“The middle social layers are implicated in nearly every aspect of our lives,” the authors write. “What we do together affects our character, capacities, deepest-held moral commitments, and any number of other aspects of who we are.”
What We Do Together looks at four spheres of our lives: “families, religious organizations, secular communities, and workplaces.” They find:
Families. The Census Bureau reports that the percentage of Americans who lived with a spouse fell from 71 percent in 1973 to 50 percent in 2016. Although the divorce rate rose only slightly, from 15 per 1,000 married women in 1970 to 18 per 1,000 married women in 2010, part of the reason for this small increase is that the population got older and older people are less likely to divorce than younger ones. Demographers Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles calculate that if the percentage of married women of different ages had been the same in 1970 as it was in 2010, the adjusted divorce rate would have risen from 10 per 1,000 married women in 1970 to 18 per 1,000 married women in 2010.
Religion. The percentage of Americans who have been raised in a religion has fallen from 98 percent in the early 1970's to 91 percent today, and the percentage of Americans who say they have no religious preference has risen from five percent in the early 1970's to between 18-22 percent today. According to the General Social Survey, the percentage of Americans who say they have “a great deal” of confidence in organized religion has fallen from 36 percent in 1973 to 20 percent in 2016.
Being with other people. We’re less likely to spend time with neighbors than in the past. The General Social Survey says the percentage of Americans who spend several evenings a month with neighbors fell from 30 percent in 1974 to 16 percent in 2016. We’re also less likely to trust others. The General Social Survey reports that the percentage of American who thought that most people could be trusted has fallen from 46 percent to 31 percent between 1972-2016. Gallup says that the percentage of Americans who trusted “the government in Washington to do what is right” fell from 53 to 22 percent during the same period. Far fewer people trust the press, the schools, labor unions, big business, and the medical system, but the percentage of trust people have in local government and their friends has remained relatively stable.
Work. As women have entered the labor force in increasing numbers, the volunteer work they used to do has been largely superseded by full-time jobs from nonprofits. As women have increased their labor force participation, the percentage of men who are working has slowly but inexorably declined, as American Enterprise Institute fellow Nicholas Eberstadt shows in his book Men Without Work (which I reviewed for Philanthropy Daily). These men who aren’t working aren’t volunteering; as a 2016 paper by a research team led by Mark Aguilar points out, they’re spending their days at home playing video games, particularly as the costs of games and computers has steadily fallen.
What should be done to build up social capital? Sen. Lee calls for more federalism, with power devolved away from Washington as much as possible and returned toward local government and local communitites. “When you respect federalism more consistently and faithfully,” Sen. Lee says, “you allow more of the people in America to get more of the government they want and less of the government they don’t want.”
The authors of What We Do Together don’t offer any policy recommendations. But they warn that declining social capital is one reason why life in our country seems so sour today.
“We may be materially richer than in the past,” the authors conclude. “But with atrophied social capabilities, with a diminished sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves, and with less security in our family life, we are much poorer for doing less together.”
 I have done editing for the Manhattan Institute, which published my study By Their Bootstraps.
 The American Enterprise Institute has been a client since 1990. Most recently, in 2016 and 2017, I provided education research to the institute under contract. I do not currently have any projects with AEI.