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America’s Fraying Social Ties

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America’s Fraying Social Ties

May 23, 2017

In some ways, the outlook in America is bright. Unemployment remains low, poverty fell substantially last year, and people today have access to new technologies or services that would have been inconceivable just a generation ago. Materially, there has likely never been a better time to be alive. Even so, more people feel a growing sense of dissatisfaction and despair, isolated from those around them.

A raft of important work has highlighted the problem of people becoming disconnected, from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. A 2015 study by Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed that middle-income whites faced increasing problems ranging from opioid use to suicide.

Now a new report written by Joint Economic Committee staff for the new Social Capital Project deepens the analysis of the diminution of these important ties. The overarching focus of the multi-year project will be “associational life,” or the web of social ties that connect people within American society.

Across a number of measures, these ties have become weaker in recent years. This could be a major factor feeding people’s dissatisfaction, even though most of them are better off in so many ways than previous generations.

The weakening of these ties pervades different levels of connection, from marriage and family to neighbors, work, and the broader community.

Some groups, particularly younger men with less educational attainment, are leaving the labor force at an increasing rate, severing one of the most fundamental ties between people and the broader society.

More people are living alone, as the share of working age Americans living with a relative plunged from 92 to 79 percent. Some of this is due to longer life expectancy, which is a positive development. Some is due to delayed marriage. Partly as a consequence, fewer people are getting married, and fewer families are having children.

The share of adults who said they spent a social evening with a neighbor at least several times a week fell from 30 percent in 1974 to just 19 percent in 2016. Even as people spend less time with their neighbors, these neighborhoods are becoming more economically segregated, so people get even less exposure and interaction to people who are not like them.

More people are living in a self-selected bubble, insulated and isolated from interaction with other people. These weaker ties bleed into attitudes and cohesion. From 1972 and 2016, the share of adults who thought most people could be trusted declined from 46 to 31 percent. In a recent YouGov/Economist poll, two-thirds of respondents described the current mood of the country as “it’s everyone for themselves.”

The underlying causes of this weakening are not uniformly bad. Evolving attitudes about women, the workplace, and marriage mean that women have more choices available to them. Some of the previous associations were brought about by necessity because people needed material assistance, and as people become more affluent they have less need for such assistance. Even so, the unraveling of the social fabric has collateral consequences that are still not fully understood. Increasing levels of despair and lack of purpose could be tied to the lack of deeper ties to those around them.

The form of interactions has also changed due to the proliferation of social media. These new methods can make it easier for people who are geographically disparate to stay in touch, but social media also leads some people substitute digital interaction for in-person associations. It is not clear how the changing composition of the way people interact alters the quality of those associations, and the effect on social capital is ambiguous.

The initial overview from the project does not delve into the role of social media other than a brief acknowledgement of its growing role. Future reports could shed more light on whether these new forms of interaction exacerbate the fraying of the social fabric, or if they instead make it easier for people to build ties to others that transcend physical proximity.

The initial overview from the project does not delve into the role of social media other than a brief acknowledgement of its growing role. Future reports could shed more light on whether these new forms of interaction exacerbate the fraying of the social fabric, or if they instead make it easier for people to build ties to others that transcend physical proximity.

Other aspects, such as the decline of religious affiliation, are outside the scope of public policy. Senator Mike Lee, who requested the report from the Joint Economic Committee, explicitly recognizes these limits. He explains, “I certainly don’t want any government program that has as its object either encouraging or discouraging people from being religious. I do think people should be aware of the trends.”

The initial overview from the Social Capital Project gives a sense of the long-term trends relating to associational life. Future reports will delve further into understanding the causes of these trends and their consequences for different aspects of American society. Finally, the project will try to explore how policy might be changed to brighten the outlook for social capital in this country.

The work of the Social Capital Project will analyze to what extent these developments have been exacerbated by government policy, and whether removing some of these barriers could make it easier for people to connect to each other again. Even with these insights, these complicated problems do not lend themselves to easy legislative fixes. The solutions will not be found exclusively in Washington, or any level of government.

As the economy and broader society change over time, the social fabric still remains important. This project will help us understand what has been happening to these ties, and what can be done to repair them.

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @CharlesHHughes

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