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About the Project

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.

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.
The opioid crisis remains one of the most pressing issues of our time. Who succumbs to addiction—and is therefore at risk of dying from a drug overdose—is affected by a variety of factors, but many of them are social. Adults who experience childhood trauma—often at the hands of a family member—are also especially at risk of addiction.
The share of prime-age men—between the ages of 25 and 54—that is neither working nor looking for work has been rising for decades. This rise has left an increasing number of men outside the world of work, historically an important source of social capital. Research suggests that these men often have especially constricted associational lives.

This report is intended to enrich our understanding of who these prime-age "inactive" men are. It summarizes evidence from past research and fills out our picture of these men, providing some details about their past and present social and emotional lives. We introduce an under-utilized dataset little-known to economists and sociologists, the "National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions-III," or NESARC-III.
Is America in the middle of a loneliness epidemic?

Claims of rising loneliness are often part of a larger narrative about fraying social bonds in America. In this framing, loneliness is seen as one symptom among many of a larger set of problems.
The Social Capital Project recently released a Social Capital Index covering every state and nearly every county in America. As we discussed in the accompanying report, states with high index values tend to be smaller than states with low values. Fully 56 percent of Americans live in the 40 percent of states with the lowest social capital values, while just 21 percent reside in the 40 percent of states with the highest values. In our report, population size had a negative correlation with both the state and county-level versions of our index (-0.34 and -0.15, respectively).
Social capital is almost surely an important factor driving many of our nation’s greatest successes and most serious challenges. Indeed, the withering of associational life is itself one of those challenges. Public policy solutions to such challenges are inherently elusive. But at present, policymakers and researchers lack the high-quality contemporary measures of social capital available at the state and local levels to even try proposing solutions that are attuned to associational life.