What We Do Together

May 15 2017

Americans are living through a period of transition to a post-industrial society based on knowledge and services, one that has wrought immense social changes. Past changes of similar scale—first from the long pre-agricultural past to rural farming life, followed by our tumultuous transition to an industrial economy—have been accompanied by social dislocation and subsequent adaptation.

To be sure, much is going well in America. Relative to many other countries, we hold an enviable position. Having emerged from the Great Recession, the nation enjoys relatively low unemployment and incomes that, while growing too slowly, are as high as they have ever been across the board. Educational attainment continues to increase; a higher share of Americans than ever before have a college degree. Most workers enjoy longer retirements, and overall life expectancy is at all-time highs. By these standards, it has never been a better time to be alive in America.

And yet, despite this real progress, there is a disorienting sense that our social fabric is frayed. We are wealthier in material terms than ever before, but leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly “bowling alone,” “coming apart” and inhabiting a “fractured republic.”

At the heart of those warnings is the view that what happens in the middle layers of society – what we do together in the space between the individual and the state – is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic and pluralistic country. It is in this space – a space held together by extended networks of cooperation, social support, norms, trust and mutual obligation -- that we learn to solve problems together.

While much is going well in America on a comparative and historical basis, these middle layers of society are suffering.

For example, between 1960 and 2015, the proportion of children under 18 living with only one or neither parent increased dramatically, from 12% to 31%. And in 2015, over a third of parents—and half of fathers—said they spent too little time with their children.

In the early 1970s, nearly seven in ten adults in America were still members of a church or synagogue. Today, just 55% are.

And between 1972 and 2016, the share of adults who thought most people could be trusted declined from 46% to 31%.

There are innumerable factors that have contributed to the challenges Americans face in this new era. All are important, including the rise of dual-income families, increasing commodification of services once performed by acquaintances, isolating social technology, and a growing reliance on the federal government that ignores local knowledge and leads to polarized “solutions” that can’t help but offend the values of large swaths of the populace.

Today, my office is releasing the first in a series of reports that will document and investigate these issues. This Social Capital Project will explore the nature, quality and importance of our associational life. In other words, what we do together.

Through a series of reports and hearings, it will study the state of the relationships that weave together the social fabric enabling our country—our laws, our institutions, our markets and our democracy—to function so well in the first place.

Why does the health of America’s associational life feel so compromised? Where is it compromised? What consequences have followed from declining social capital? Why do some communities have more robust civil society than others? What can be done—or can stop being done—to grow Americans’ stock of social capital? What will enable us to live better together?

The answers to these questions are elusive and will occasionally be controversial. But this is a discussion our nation desperately needs to have, and I hope this project can help further all of our understanding.

Op-ed originally published by Forbes