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Representative David Schweikert - Vice Chairman

Does Government Crowd Out Social Capital?

Does Government Crowd Out Social Capital?

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Executive Summary

The more than half-century decline of Americans’ social capital is evident in atrophied connections to family, less vibrant communities, smaller faith groups, and fewer connections to work. A portion of the decline in social capital is likely driven by the growth of government during the same time. Declining social capital has negative consequences for peoples’ physical health, mental well-being, and economic security.

  • Social capital reached its zenith in the middle of the 20th century and has steadily declined since.

  • The U.S. government has grown substantially during this time. Real per-person government spending has grown 20-fold between 1929 and 2019 and federal regulatory restrictions increased 164 percent between 1970 and 2020.

  • The explosive growth of the U.S. government through the 1960s and 1970s matches the contemporaneous inflection point and decline of social capital. Governments distort the foundations for vibrant families, communities, congregations, and workplaces.

  • Most macro-level research on social capital and the size of government is inconclusive and not appropriately designed to identify the causal effects of government on social capital.

  • The micro-level research, however, clearly shows that many different types of government spending directly reduce measures of social capital.

  • New evidence shows that U.S. counties that rely more heavily on government assistance tend to also have weaker social capital. More than 70 percent of counties in the top decile of the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Index are in the bottom third of counties with the lowest share of SNAP participation among households below 100 percent of the poverty line. States with a greater number of regulatory restrictions also tend to have lower levels of social capital.

  • The decline of social capital is a complex phenomenon with many contributing factors. However, the size and scope of government is the one most directly in policymakers’ control. To begin reversing the tide of receding social connection lawmakers should scale back government’s growth.  

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