Social Capital Project


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Last year, Senator Mike Lee launched The Social Capital Project, described as “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 initiative has released several reports, whose findings I will highlight below:

  • What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America
    • Between 1975 and 2011, the share of three- and four-year-olds cared for by a
      parent during the day declined from 80 percent to somewhere between 24 and
      48 percent. But parents are spending no less time with their children overall.
    • Between 1973 and 2016, the percentage of Americans age 18-64 who lived with
      a relative declined from 92 percent to 79 percent. The decline was driven by a
      dramatic 21-point drop in the percentage who were living with a spouse, from 71
      percent to 50 percent.
    • In 1970, there were 76.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15 and
      older. As of 2015, that rate had declined by more than half to 32 per thousand.
    • In 1970, 56 percent of American families included at least one child, but by 2016
      just 42 percent did. The average family with children had 2.3 children in 1970 but
      just 1.9 in 2016. Among all families—with or without children—the average
      number of children per family has dropped from 1.3 to 0.8.
    • Between 1970 and 2016, the share of children being raised by a single parent (or
      by neither parent) rose from 15 percent to 31 percent.
    • Between 1970 and 2015, births to single mothers rose from 11 percent of all
      births to 40 percent.
    • In the early 1970s, nearly seven in ten adults in America were still members of a
      church or synagogue. While fewer Americans attended religious service
      regularly, 50 to 57 percent did so at least once per month. Today, just 55 percent
      of adults are members of a church or synagogue, while just 42 to 44 percent
      attend religious service at least monthly.
    • In the early 1970s, 98 percent of adults had been raised in a religion, and just 5
      percent reported no religious preference. Today, however, the share of adults
      who report having been raised in a religion is down to 91 percent, and 18 to 22
      percent of adults report no religious preference.
    • In 1973, two-thirds of adults had “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in
      “the church or organized religion,” and in another survey the same year, 36
      percent reported “a great deal” of confidence in organized religion. By 2016,
      those numbers had fallen to 41 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
    • Between 1974 and 2016, the percent of adults who said they spend a social
      evening with a neighbor at least several times a week fell from 30 percent to 19
    • Between 1970 and the early 2010s, the share of families in large metropolitan
      areas who lived in middle-income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent to 40
      percent. Over that same time period the share of families living in poor
      neighborhoods rose from 19 percent to 30 percent, and those living in affluent
      neighborhoods rose from 17 percent to 30 percent
    • Between 1972 and 2016, the share of adults who thought most people could be
      trusted declined from 46 percent to 31 percent. Between 1974 and 2016, the
      number of Americans expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust in the
      judgement of the American people “under our democratic system about the
      issues facing our country” fell from 83 percent to 56 percent.
    • Between 1974 and 2015, the share of adults that did any volunteering who
      reported volunteering for at least 100 hours increased from 28 percent to 34
    • Between 1972 and 2012, the share of the voting-age population that was
      registered to vote fell from 72 percent to 65 percent, and the trend was similar for
      the nonpresidential election years of 1974 and 2014. Correspondingly, between
      1972 and 2012, voting rates fell from 63 percent to 57 percent (and fell from 1974
      to 2014).
    • Between 1972 and 2008, the share of people saying they follow “what’s going on
      in government and public affairs” declined from 36 percent to 26 percent.
    • Between 1972 and 2012, the share of Americans who tried to persuade someone
      else to vote a particular way increased from 32 percent to 40 percent.
    • Between the mid-1970s and 2012, the average amount of time Americans
      between the ages of 25 and 54 spent with their coworkers outside the workplace
      fell from about two-and-a-half hours to just under one hour.
    • The share of workers living and working in different counties was 26 percent in
      1970 and 27 percent in the second half of the 2000s, and commuting time has
      risen only modestly since 1980.
    • Between the mid-1970s and 2012, among 25- to 54-year-olds, time at work rose
      4 percent. The story was very different for men and women though. Hours at
      work rose 27 percent among women. Among men, hours at work fell by 9
      percent between the mid-1970s and 2012.
    • Work has become rarer, in particular, among men with less education. From the
      mid-1970s to 2012, hours at work fell by just 2 percent among men with a college
      degree or an advanced degree, compared with 14 percent among those with no
      more than a high school education.
    • Between 1995 and 2015, workers in “alternative work arrangements” (e.g., temp
      jobs, independent contracting, etc.) grew from 9 percent to 16 percent of the
    • Since 2004, median job tenure has been higher than its 1973 level, indicating
      that workers are staying in their jobs longer than in the past.
    • Between 1970 and 2015, union membership declined from about 27 percent to
      11 percent of all wage and salary workers.


  • Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing
    • Nonmarital sexual activity has risen substantially since the mid-twentieth century.
      The share of teen-age women who are sexually active, for example, is 2.5 times
      higher today than in the early 1960s. Increasing use of reliable contraception has
      mitigated the effect on unwed childbearing. Over the same period, the share of
      women having used contraception the first time they had sex outside marriage
      more than doubled. But while marital pregnancy rates have fallen in half as a
      result of the contraceptive revolution, because of higher rates of sexual activity,
      improper contraceptive use, and the increasing acceptability of unwed childbearing,
      nonmarital pregnancy rates are over one-third higher than in the early 1960s.
    • As for abortion, pregnant women—married or single—are less likely to obtain
      an abortion than they were before the Roe v. Wade decision. That decline also
      reflects the declining stigma around unwed childbearing and a drop in unintended
      pregnancy. Since at least the early 1980s, a rising share of births from nonmarital
      pregnancies are from pregnancies that were intentional; today, half of births from
      nonmarital pregnancies are intended.
    • Three times as many births today are from unwed pregnancies than in the early
      1960s, and only 9 percent of these pregnancies are followed by a shotgun marriage—down
      from 43 percent in the early 1960s.
    • We trace these trends to the rising affluence of the mid-twentieth century, when
      a greater prioritization of nonmaterial needs (especially among women, who saw
      greatly expanded opportunities) met a rising ability to fulfill them. The effect of
      affluence was felt in the discovery of penicillin (which dramatically reduced the
      incidence of syphilis); the introduction of the pill (which expanded women’s opportunities
      by allowing them to control their fertility); the development and increasing
      affordability of labor-saving home appliances, processed food, and paid child
      care (which gave women the opportunity to work longer hours outside the home,
      raising the opportunity cost of childbearing); and the nation’s expansion of a safety
      net for single mothers (facilitating childbearing without marriage among more
      disadvantaged women). Rising affluence is an undeniably beneficial development
      that we should not want to reverse, but it has also led to less stable family circumstances
      for an increasing number of children.


  • The Geography of Social Capital in America
    • The top fifth of states, in terms of social capital scores, are
      home to just nine percent of Americans, while 29 percent
      live in bottom-fifth states.
    • We have social capital scores for 2,992 of 3,142 counties,
      containing 99.7 percent of the American population. Just
      eight percent of Americans live in the top fifth of these counties,
      while 39 percent of the population lives in the bottom
      fifth of counties. Nearly six in ten (59 percent) of Americans
      live in the bottom two fifths of counties, compared with 24
      percent living in the top two fifths.
    • The 12 states with the highest social capital scores are distributed
      across two continuous blocs: nine states running from
      Utah, through Wyoming and Colorado, across the Dakotas
      and Nebraska, and over to Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin;
      and the three Northern New England states of Maine, New
      Hampshire, and Vermont. These states tend to rank highly
      across all seven subindices as well. Utah has the highest
      social capital score, followed by Minnesota and Wisconsin.
    • Of the 11 states with the lowest levels of social capital, ten
      of them fall within a contiguous bloc of states running from
      Nevada, across the Southwest and South over to Georgia
      and Florida. New York is the only state in the bottom 11 that
      is outside this group. Louisiana has the lowest social capital
      score, followed by Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.
    • Of the nine states ranked just above this bottom group, seven
      border and extend the southern bloc, filling out most of
      the rest of the South. The 17 southern states in the bottom
      20 are home to 45 percent of Americans and 74 percent of
      Americans in bottom-fifth counties. Six in ten (59 percent) of
      people in the 17 states live in bottom-fifth counties. Only 17
      of 1,338 counties in these states are in the top fifth.
    • Our indices are not dominated by any single subindex, and
      our state and county indices appear to be approximating social
      capital in the same general way.
    • Among the component variables underlying the state index,
      the strongest associations with the index itself across states
      were for the volunteer rate (0.86), heavy television watching
      by children (-0.81), the share of adults who made charitable
      contributions (0.80), the share with emotional and social
      support (0.80), heavy usage of electronics among children
      (-0.77), the share of adults that are married (0.75), the share
      of children living with a single parent (-0.72), and the share
      of births that were to unwed mothers (-0.71).
    • At the county level, the highest correlates of social capital
      were violent crime (-0.73), the share of children with a single
      parent (-0.71), the share of adults currently married (0.69),
      voting rates (0.59), and nonprofits plus congregations (0.57).
    • Despite the outsized role that religious communities have
      played in social capital investment, indicators of religious
      adherence and commitment were generally weakly (or even
      negatively) correlated with our social capital scores, both
      at the state and county levels. This may suggest that social
      capital organized around religion may be displaced by secular
      sources of social capital, that the availability of resources
      provided by secular social capital weakens religious commitment,
      or that people in distressed places turn to religious
      communities for the support that is missing in other parts of
      their lives. This question is a subject for future Social Capital
      Project research.
    • Our social capital indices correlate strongly with earlier social
      capital indices across states and counties, and with other
      indices such as the Family Prosperity Institute’s Family
      Prosperity Index, Opportunity Nation’s Opportunity Index,
      and the Economic Innovation Group’s Distressed Communities
    • We show the correlations of our indices and subindices with
      59 state-level and 50 county-level benchmarks reflecting
      a range of economic, social, demographic, educational,
      health, and other outcomes.
    • Our index is a clear improvement on the Penn State index,
      based on this benchmarking, but remarkably, Robert Putnam’s
      state index from Bowling Alone, published nearly two
      decades ago, has slightly higher benchmark correlations
      than ours. Because our index captures the health of family
      life, and because it is based on up-to-date and freely available
      data (including at the county level), we still prefer it to
      the Putnam measure. The fact that the correlation between
      the two state-level indices is 0.81 reassuringly suggests that
      very different approaches to social capital measurement
      capture the same essential construct.

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