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.
As sources of valuable social capital, few relationships are as important as the family ties between parents and children. However, as with other features of our associational life, family ties have been weakening for several decades.
While there are good reasons not to rely on the tax code to promote social goals, its imbalanced treatment of spending and saving actually discourages savings and thereby poses a barrier to social capital investment. Universal savings accounts would help rectify this bias.
There is a strong family affordability case for avoiding policies that increase home prices. The current slate of itemized deductions is ineffective in achieving the goal of family affordability, and the system is therefore ripe for reform.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.