Northwest States Do Best, Southeast Worst in New Social Capital Measure

Lee Project releases new tools for measuring social capital in U.S.

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A new index, released earlier this week, tracks social capital in America, showing the distribution of the nation's togetherness in a time when many worry it is coming apart.

The index is a product of the Social Capital Project, the work of Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) and the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. The SCP is focused on measuring the decline in social capital, the measure of how tightly tied to communities and to one another Americans are.

The SCP's latest project is meant to capture how social capital is spread throughout the United States, and where it's strongest and weakest. This work adds to previous indexes produced by researchers at Penn State University and by noted social scientist Robert Putnam. The SCP argues that these past efforts rely on out-of-date data, or under-include certain indicators.

"Our conclusion was that a better social capital index was needed than those currently available," the report reads.

To measure social capital, the project aggregated numerous publicly available statistics on America's states and counties. These included measures of family, like time spent together and out-of-wedlock births (on which the SCP has reported previously); measures of social support, like the average number of friends adults have; and measure of community and institutional health, like volunteer hours and voting habits.

The results indicate important variations in the regional distribution of social capital. The helpful, interactive maps provided by the project show that social capital concentrates mostly in the upper Midwest, spreading to the Pacific northwest and concentrating in states like Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. By contrast, measures of social capital are weakest in the south, but also in states like New York and California, and in states struck by the opioid crisis like West Virginia and Kentucky.

The consequences of this means that few Americans live in the areas with the highest social capital, while large concentrations of Americans live in the areas with the least. 24 percent of Americans are in the top two-fifths of social capital counties; 59 percent live in the bottom two-fifths.

Certain heuristics the project used to measure social capital were more predictive than others, once the final index had been assembled. At the state level, rates of volunteering strongly positively correlated with overall social capital, while rates of children watching television strongly negatively correlated. At the county level, the rate of violent crime and the share of children with a single parent were both strongly negatively correlated.

Notably certain measures were not strongly predictive of social capital. Indicators of religious involvement were weakly correlated with social capital scores, both in the states and in the counties.

"This may suggest that social capital organized around religion may be displaced by secular sources of social capital, that the availability of resources provided by secular social capital weakens religious commitment, or that people in distressed places turn to religious communities for the support that is missing in other parts of their lives," the report notes.

Scott Winship, the SCP's project director, told reporters in an email that the project expects to use the accumulated data going forward to better analyze topics like "economic mobility and deaths of despair." Winship also promised social capital analyses broken down by America's metropolitan and micropolitan areas, commuting zones, and congressional districts.