Between 1970 and today, Americans’ community ties have been in stark decline. The proportion of citizens living with a spouse plunged from 71 to 50 percent. Forty percent of all births are to single mothers, up from 11 percent. Fifty-five percent of American adults are members of churches or synagogues, down from almost 70 percent. We are more segregated by class and spend less time with our neighbors, friends, and coworkers than 50 years ago.
Measuring, then addressing, this coming apart is the goal of Sen. Mike Lee's (R., Utah.) Social Capital Project (SCP). Begun in May of this year, the project released its second full report last week. That analysis, along with others on topics like volunteering, aims to capture the often hard-to-quantify state of American community.
"There are all sorts of things here in Washington that we measure through the federal government to tell us how we’re doing and what the health of our country is: gross domestic product, we measure tax revenues coming in, we measure what we spend and where we spend it," Lee told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview. "Studying what's happening to institutions of civil society is important. The fact that it's difficult to quantify and measure doesn’t mean that it’s not important. We’re increasingly concluding that it is."
The Social Capital Project is concerned with what’s called "associational life," which focuses on participation in the associations—family, churches, schools, teams, and other civic organizations—in which Americans are embedded. These entities serve as what Yuval Levin calls "mediating institutions," standing between the individual citizen and the state, and cushioning the former against overreach on the part of the latter.
Thinkers since de Tocqueville have noted the power of such institutions. Married men are healthier and earn more, while children of intact families perform better on a number of metrics. Private associations can teach children, challenge poverty, and generally insure the health and wellbeing of a community.
However, American involvement in associational life is eroding. That breakdown has drawn attention to the importance of these institutions with urgency previously unheard of.
"This would have been revolutionary thinking a couple of decades ago and is not now," Lee said, referring to the focus of thinkers like political scientist Robert Putnam on associational life issues. "I don't think people were aware of some of these issues, in part because they hadn't manifested themselves as much as they now have, as far as a breakdown of institutions of civil society and social connectedness."
Lee's goal with the SCP is to measure this breakdown, its impact, and eventually—though it's not there yet—propose policy solutions to help arrest some of the decay.
Lee, a staunch small-government conservative, is quick to make clear that his goal is to get government out of the way, rather than try to micromanage from the top.
"I don't harbor any delusional belief that government can make those things, that it can create them," he said of civil society institutions. "But I do believe government can weaken them, and government can identify things that it might be doing that can make institutions of civil society either thrive or atrophy.
"I don't want government running civil society. I don't want government in charge of any church or synagogue. I don't want it running charitable foundations. And I certainly don't want it running families. And for the same reasons, I want to not undermine those things either," he said.
Often government involvement, no matter how well-intentioned, can crowd out civil society institutions, adding to state omnicompetence at the expense of withering communities.
"I don't think anyone starts out to say, ‘Let's devise a government program that will undermine the family as the fundamental building block of any civilization.' I don't think anybody starts out with that in mind. But sometimes some of what we do might have that effect," Lee said.
Several policies could contribute to getting government out of the way of America's associational life, according to Lee. Those include a child tax credit, a boon for families and a proposal to which he seemed friendly.
"One of the things that I've long believed is that we at a minimum shouldn't be harming families. We shouldn't be punishing people for getting married and having children," he said.
A pro-family tax policy also means friendliness to adoptive families, a subject that has prompted some controversy as Republicans rolled out a tax plan absent the adoption tax credit. Lee signalled his belief that the tax credit would end up in the final bill.
"It's a concern," he said of the controversy. "I suspect it'll get put back in there."
Following Lee's comment, congressional Republicans made clear that the tax credit would be preserved in final legislation.
The opioid crisis has also been a major focus of the SCP's research, especially so-called "deaths of despair," suicides and drug overdose deaths which have contributed to a shocking increase in the mortality rate for white Americans.
"There appears to be a strong correlation between social disconnectedness and drug addiction, and of course between drug addiction and deaths of despair, including drug overdoses. Anything that drives apart families in particular seems to be much more likely to do that sort of thing," Lee said.
Concrete concerns like the opioid epidemic are tied directly into the decay in associational life, the most recent SCP report suggested, noting how the burdens of opioid addiction fall most prominently on the undereducated and the unmarried. Lee noted that the project's next report, will also touch on marriage, specifically on declining rates of marriage formation and the phenomenon of the "shotgun wedding."
The SCP has garnered support throughout the Senate, including from Lee's colleagues across the aisle.
"Everyone I've had the opportunity to discuss this with has been very interested, people are very supportive of the idea. I haven't come across anyone who has said, ‘no, that's stupid,'" he said.