Social Capital Project

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.


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.

Nonmarital childbearing has increased dramatically in the United States. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of births were outside of marriage. Today, over 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. This trend is troubling, considering that children are on average at-risk for poorer outcomes when raised outside a married-parent home.1 As we explain in our recent report, Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing, several factors contributed to the increase in nonmarital births. The most significant factors, however, have been the decline in “shotgun marriage” (unions occurring between a nonmarital conception and a birth) and the drop in marriage altogether.

In an analysis last year, Volunteerism in America, the Social Capital Project found that rates of volunteerism have either held steady or risen over the past forty years—a rare indicator of the health of our associational life that has not worsened over the period. Our initial report, What We Do Together, also highlighted the increase in hours of volunteering per person over time.

A Future Without Kin?

Jan 03 2018

At the Joint Economic Committee’s hearing on social capital in America, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam highlighted a looming problem that has flown under the policy radar. Many people know that we face a challenge of providing elder care for baby boomers. But what is less recognized, according to Putnam, is the burden that deficits of social capital in this generation will place on paid forms of care. The boomers “will almost certainly require substantially more paid eldercare per person than their parents’ generation.”

The most intimate and central form of associational life is the family—an institution with primary responsibility for nurturing children and transmitting values, knowledge, aspirations, and skills to subsequent generations. A healthy family life is the foundation for a healthy associational life. Children can overcome the negative consequences of being raised in unhappy or unstable families, but many start out the game of life already behind in crucial ways. More profoundly, weakened family life portends a diminished ability of a people to promote and nurture the civil society and pro-social norms that facilitate happiness and prosperity.

The American Enterprise Institute recently published a new report by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang that highlights the class divide in American marriage. As the authors explain, prior to the 1970s family life looked similar across socioeconomic levels, but today there are stark divides across class when it comes to marriage, divorce, and unwed childbearing.