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Over the past 50 years, the United States has experienced major shifts in geographic mobility patterns among its highly-educated citizens. Some states today are keeping and receiving a greater share of these adults than they used to, while many others are both hemorrhaging their homegrown talent and failing to attract out-of-staters who are highly educated. This phenomenon has far-reaching implications for our collective social and political life, extending beyond the economic problems for states that lose highly-educated adults.
Last year, the Social Capital Project released its Social Capital Index, a tool that measures the health of associational life across the United States. As explained in our earlier report, What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America, we define associational life as the “web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations.”1 Overall, Utah ranks as the state with the highest social capital among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. Utah’s robust associational life is likely connected to the history of many of its people, whose ancestors pioneered to the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s to seek religious freedom and build a united, religious community.

The Index utilizes several categories of variables to measure social capital at the state level: family unity, family interaction, social support, community health, institutional health, collective efficacy, and philanthropic health. 2 Utah ranked number one on three of these categories—family unity, social support, and philanthropic health. It ranked within the top ten on three others—family interaction, collective efficacy, and community health. However, on institutional health it ranked all the way down at number 30.

Although family life in America has become less stable over the last several decades, the majority of the American population still agrees that marriage provides value to individuals and society. Yet based on results from the 2018 American Family Survey, marriage and parenting fall low on the list of what respondents considered essential to a fulfilling life. And while Americans overall seem to think that childbearing should take place within marriage, marriage does not seem to be as important a prerequisite to becoming a parent as are other factors. While college-educated adults are often achieving their own preferred ideal—gaining a good education, earning a good living, building a rewarding career, and also marrying and having children within marriage—many in the rest of the population (particularly the non-college educated) are not.
This week, marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Senator Mike Lee raised the question of whether a conservative populism could be racially unifying, rather than divisive. Senator Lee, the new chairman designate of the Joint Economic Committee, emphasized the importance of both advocating personal responsibility and acknowledging deep-seated barriers to opportunity (including policy barriers), as Dr. King did. To illustrate the point, and how social capital can be affected by deep-seated cultural, economic, and historical factors, the piece featured a map developed by the Social Capital Project. The map, which is shown above, vividly illustrates the connection between slavery and diminished associational life in the contemporary Southeast. In this post, we briefly elaborate on this connection and provide the details of how we created the map.
Social capital may be most valuable when an individual’s needs are greatest. Old age is a time of life when people often need to rely on family, friends, and other social relationships for care they are no longer able to provide for themselves. If an elderly adult lacks those relationships, however, they may have to lean more heavily on paid professional care, potentially leading to a lower quality of life and higher costs for families and government.