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Analysis

Much has been said about coronavirus’s costs to public health and the economy, but it’s also worth considering how the virus may affect the health of American civil society. Non-profits constitute at least one significant element of civil society and they are currently being put to the test.
The family’s vital role is more apparent than ever during a crisis, and in recent weeks Americans have depended on the comfort and support of family more than usual. Unfortunately, new research suggests that the foundation of the family continues to erode.
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Even in our twenty-first-century American society, associational life ought to be at the center of thinking about our social order and public policy. This report discusses rebuilding civil society. It lays out the nature of our diminished civil society, documents trends in its decline, and charts a path to its renewal.
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The American education system makes it difficult for parents to individually tailor their children’s educational experience. Most families are defaulted into a one-size-fits-all model, designed in the age of assembly lines, and no longer fit for era of technological disruption.
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Since housing is the traditional gateway to public education, this paper suggests policymakers consider improving access to educational opportunity by minimizing residential zoning while expanding public school choice policies. Reforming residential zoning supports public school choice efforts by permitting a variety of housing throughout school zones, reducing prices, and improving affordability at every school quality level.
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Rebuilding civil society will require capitalizing on the strengths of America’s associational life to address its weaknesses. One way of doing so is to reform policy so that less of the charitable giving of Americans is subject to taxation. Doing so would be more consistent with the principle that people should not be taxed on money they give away. Reforming the charitable deduction captures the spirit of the Social Capital Project’s approach to policymaking.
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The work of Piketty, Saez, and Zucman suggests sharply rising income and wealth inequality, falling tax progressivity, and stagnant income growth for the bottom half of Americans. But other researchers have reported modestly rising income inequality, growth in wealth inequality that is less sharp, rising tax progressivity, and more robust income growth for lower-income Americans.
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Anne Case and Angus Deaton famously chronicled a dramatic rise among middle-aged non-Hispanic whites since 1999 in “deaths of despair”—deaths by suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis. The Social Capital Project has extended Case and Deaton’s research to cover the full American population as far back as available data permit: to 1900 in some cases, and to 1959 or 1968 in others. We present here a snapshot of the long-term trends in deaths of despair. We also attach our full dataset for use in future research, including results broken down by age, sex, and race.
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For two years, the Social Capital Project has documented trends in associational life—what we do together—and its distribution across the country. With this evidentiary base established, the Project turns to the development of a policy agenda rooted in social capital. Specifically, the focus will be to craft an agenda to expand opportunity by strengthening families, communities, and civil society.