Joint Economic Committee

Chairman

Congressman Pat Tiberi (R-OH)

U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Vice Chairman

Social Capital Project U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah

About the Project

Today, Americans face a wide variety of challenges in our era of tumultuous transition. We are materially better off in many ways than in the past. But despite this real progress, there is a sense that our social fabric has seen better days. Leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly “bowling alone,” “coming apart,” and inhabiting a “fractured republic.” At the heart of those warnings is a view that what happens in the middle layers of our society is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country. That space is held together by extended networks of cooperation and social support, norms of reciprocity and mutual obligation, trust, and social cohesion. In short, it is sustained by what we do together.

The Social Capital Project is 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 goal of the project is to better understand why the health of our associational life feels so compromised, what consequences have followed from changes in the middle social layers of our society, why some communities have more robust civil society than others, and what can be done—or can stop being done—to improve the health of our social capital. Through a series of reports and hearings, it will study the state of the relationships that weave together the social fabric enabling our country—our laws, our institutions, our markets, and our democracy—to function so well in the first place.

Analysis

The American Enterprise Institute recently published a new report by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang that highlights the class divide in American marriage. As the authors explain, prior to the 1970s family life looked similar across socioeconomic levels, but today there are stark divides across class when it comes to marriage, divorce, and unwed childbearing.

The authors show that poor and working-class Americans are much less likely than their middle- and upper-income peers to marry or remain married. They are also far more likely to have children outside of marriage, such that unwed childbearing has become the norm among the poor and increasingly common among the working class. Middle- and upper-income Americans, on the other hand, nearly always wait until marriage to have children. (The authors define ‘poor’ as those with less than a high school education or those with a family income below the 20th percentile; ‘working class’ refers to those with only a high school education or some college, or with income between the 20th and 50th percentiles; and ‘middle and upper class’ are those with a college degree or an income above the 50th percentile.)

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