The State of Social Capital in America

On May 17, 2017, Fellow Robert Putnam testified before the Joint Economic Committee on the state of social capital in America.  The hearing was called by the vice chairman of the committee, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).  During a time of unprecedented material comfort, “many Americans—poor, middle class, wealthy—feel something in our society is amiss,” Senator Lee said during his opening statement.  “There is a sense that our social fabric in America is fraying and these concerns are reflected in objective measures like family and community health,” he continued.  Ranking member of the committee Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) pointed out that economic realities make it difficult for many to form civic networks and the policy role is “to provide the essential building blocks including affordable childcare, universal pre-K, and quality, affordable healthcare.”

Putnam testified alongside Mario Small (Harvard University), Yuval Levin (Ethics and Public Policy Center), and Charles Murray (American Enterprise Institute) on how social networks influence our lives, the economy, and our democracy.  Putnam discussed the growing opportunity gap and what happens when the “bowling alone” generation becomes the aging alone generation. The opportunity gap, which he also addresses in his book, “Our Kids,” starts at an early age and only grows as poor kids get priced out of extracurricular activities and when their family life makes social networks harder to form and maintain, Putnam explained. The economic realities of the poorest Americans impact social capital as these children grow and enter the work force.

“Baby boomers will enjoy much less informal elder care than their parents did,” Putnam testified. Paid elder care is an increasing part of overall care as the population ages, and Putnam noted that much of the research on elder care today includes the Greatest Generation, which had a high level of social capital and relied on friends, relatives, and religious organizations for care as they aged.  Boomers have much less social capital than the previous generation, including fewer spouses and children, fewer friends, and fewer religious ties.  “In short,” says Putnam, “Boomers are entering retirement with one third less social capital than their parents enjoyed” which can lead to social isolation and less reliable care as they age.