The Power of Community
We are living through a once-in-a-century global pandemic. With no treatments or vaccines for Covid-19, the only way to guarantee our safety has been to separate ourselves from others, to retreat from our communities. As we have left our schools, our offices, and our churches to lead more isolated lives with only our immediate family members, many of us have experienced a growing awareness of how much joy and richness our lives gained through the simple act of gathering.
As Americans, we tend to rank independence and self-sufficiency among our chief values. Certainly, these lie at the heart of what we mean when we discuss the American Dream. Take, for instance, the image that perhaps best epitomizes that dream: The nuclear family standing on a grassy lawn before a brick house with a picket fence. As Americans, we like to think this portrait contains all the ingredients that define and make possible the American Dream. But the novel coronavirus has shown us that this is not exactly the case.
Trapped in our houses with only our closest kin, we are coming to appreciate that there was something in our portrait of that idealized American home — always present, but just out of frame — that is as much the substance of the American Dream as is the family and the home: the surrounding community. It seems we either ignored or took for granted that the idealized American home would be enmeshed in an active network of other individuals — children playing games on the lawn, neighbors who can lend a cup of sugar, elderly people on porches chatting about old times. Indeed, through neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and churches, Americans exist not as solitary beings or detached nuclear families, but in supporting relationships with neighbors and communities.
As these community connections have receded in our response to the pandemic, we have become suddenly aware that neither the classic American home nor the classic American Dream can exist in isolation. What's more, we've learned that without connections to one another or the means to acquire them, life can very quickly become something of a nightmare.
Historically, America's strength has owed much to the robustness of our community life — that is, our mutual connections with, affections for, and responsibilities to one another. French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed the centrality of community to American society during his 1831-1832 visit to the United States. Community life has long been the glue that binds individual Americans together; it fills relationship voids and provides people with tailored economic and social support. Communities, and the associations we build within them, are microcosms of purpose and belonging in the wide-open social spaces created by America's devotion to individual liberty.
Scholars call the breadth and depth of our community connections "social capital" — a clunky term, perhaps, but one that gives a common name to the complex and varied connections we have to one another, and on which we depend. For some Americans, the sudden break from sources of social capital due to social-distancing mandates alerted them to its existence. But for many more Americans, the erosion of social capital is nothing new. In fact, research has made clear that we have been living through the greatest collapse of social capital in American history. The breakdown of families and neighborhoods, the weakening of intermediary institutions, the increasing flight from work, the rise of social sorting, and the decline in face-to-face interactions might appear to be independent trends, but at their core, they are really just different facets of the same phenomenon: individuals disconnecting from their broader communities.
The effects of this disconnection are varied, but most are profoundly negative. Sociologists and political scientists have observed important links between the decline of community and any number of social ills, from crime to drug use to deaths of despair. Less frequently mentioned, however, is the role that social capital plays in supporting economic opportunity and upward mobility — and its absence, in stagnation and decline. Yet recent research on the topic has consistently pointed to the importance of relationships with one's family members, neighbors, teachers, and clergy in breaking the cycles of poverty. Often, it's these intimate local relationships that influence outcomes over and above whatever government programs are in place or whatever is happening in the national economy.
The American Dream encapsulates some of our core aspirations and hopes. It suggests to Americans that if we put in the hard work and play by the rules, we can reach a level of prosperity above that into which we were born. Unfortunately, while 82% of Americans report they've either achieved the American Dream or that it is within their reach, a full 17% report it to be unachievable no matter how hard they try. And in fact, according to the Pew Research Center, seven out of 10 children born poor in America will not make it to the middle class, a trend that has persisted despite varying public policies and macroeconomic conditions over many decades.
New research reveals why: The correlates of stalled economic opportunity tend to be local and relational, beyond what public policy alone can render. Rebuilding our connections to one another is thus ground zero for restoring the shared prosperity that undergirds the American Dream.
One of the first to sound the alarm regarding the sad state of Americans' social capital in modern times was Robert Putnam. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Putnam detailed the weakening of in-person social capital and the dramatic decline in the most essential forms of civic engagement in a democracy. The primary culprit, Putnam wrote, was the rise of individualized leisure activities through technological advances like television. His analysis was subsequently echoed by sociologist and political scientist Charles Murray in his 2012 book Coming Apart, which detailed the profound cultural differences that have emerged between working-class and wealthy white Americans. Focusing on components of social capital — personal and familial relationships, rates of church attendance, and participation in civic and political organizations — Murray concluded that the trend Putnam observed had intensified greatly in the years since Bowling Alone, but nearly exclusively in America's lower-income communities.
A succinct overview of the breakdown in our associational life, as discussed at length by both Putnam and Murray, can be found in the Joint Economic Committee's (JEC) 2017 report, "What We Do Together." The report tracks changes in American family life, including reduced marriage rates and fertility ("[b]etween 1970 and 2015, births to single mothers rose from 11 percent of all births to 40 percent"); lower involvement in religious activities ("[i]n the early 1970s...just 5 percent [of adults] reported no religious preference," compared to 18–22% of adults today); the decline in community activity ("[b]etween 1974 and 2016, the percent of adults who said they spend a social evening with a neighbor at least several times a week fell from 30 percent to 19 percent"); and the decline in work, especially among the less educated ("[f]rom the mid-1970s to 2012, hours at work fell by just 2 percent among men with a college degree or an advanced degree, compared with 14 percent among those with no more than a high school education").
In this same period of social-capital decay, economic opportunity has also weakened markedly. Recent work led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty shows that economic mobility — which measures how well children do relative to their peers compared with how their parents did — has stagnated since the early 1980s, meaning that the economic class into which people are born is the one in which they are likely to remain. This is the antithesis of the American Dream, which promises that through hard work and determination, an individual can improve his economic circumstances. Relative economic mobility is not the only measure that has fallen, either; absolute economic mobility — which measures how well children do compared to their parents in absolute terms — is also in steep decline. For children born in 1940, there was a 90% chance that they would out-earn their parents as adults; only 50% of children born in the 1980s could expect the same.
Recent research reveals that the breakdown of community and the erosion of upward mobility are related phenomena. A key finding of this research is that economic mobility varies by place, and that neighborhoods located a half-mile apart can exhibit dramatically different opportunity outcomes. This suggests that something deeper than what is occurring in the economy at a macro-level is driving economic opportunity.
In determining what makes for a high-opportunity versus a low-opportunity community, Chetty and others have noted that the prevalence of two-parent homes is among the most significant correlates of upward mobility. Stable families — combined with school quality, the degree of racial and income segregation, and the strength of social networks — explain more than 76% of the variance in upward mobility across various regions. All of these correlates are closely linked to relational and community health; few have anything to do with macro-level economic conditions.
A lack of such correlates creates a doom loop of sorts in economically depressed communities where residents lack social capital, with devastating consequences for those trapped within them. Princeton scholars Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented skyrocketing mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans who have only a high-school degree. They've found that the primary culprits behind these trends are recent spikes in rates of suicides, alcohol-related liver failure, and drug overdoses — the latter of which have more than quadrupled among America's less-educated and lower-income populations since the mid-1990s. Case and Deaton emphasize that the reasons for these spikes are not just related to income, but are bound up with the breakdown of lower-income communities and subsequent surges in isolation, depression, and anxiety. The authors note, for example, that steep, decades-long declines in marriage rates and labor-market opportunities occurred in the very same communities that experienced the sharpest increases in instances of depression, chronic pain, and alcohol consumption.
Admittedly, there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here: Does lower economic opportunity make men less attractive to marry, driving down marriage and family-stability rates and ultimately leading to increased rates of depression and drug use? Or are hopelessness and disconnection fueling depression and drug use, which results in decreased participation in the labor force, lower marriage rates, and weakened family stability? Much more research needs to be done in this area, but the existing evidence strongly suggests that the causal arrows point in both directions — that is to say, both explanations are to some extent true.
In Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn demonstrate how intertwined the challenges of economic opportunity and social capital really are. Through personal interviews and vivid storytelling, the authors reveal the power of family, religion, and community not simply as ends in themselves, but as engines of social and economic mobility. Nearly every story of transformation and redemption in the book is based on a meaningful personal relationship, be it with a teacher, a spouse, a priest, or a neighbor. Few, if any, are attributed to government programs or overarching macroeconomic conditions. Examples from the book include statements such as "[f]inally, with the help of a local church, Mary was able to start over. She is now sober and drug-free"; Dave Peper "[overcame] struggles with alcohol and drugs, with the supreme help of his wife," and went on to found a successful business; Mary Daly "had never thought of university and said she couldn't afford tuition, but [local college teacher Betsy] Bane offered to pay for the first semester." Academic work aside, surely most of us can think back on a person whose advice, support, or kindness shaped our lives for the better. These are the kinds of relationships that nearly everyone living the American Dream has benefited from enormously — and probably frequently — throughout their lives.
Framed in this way, the power of relationships and communities — of social capital — is perhaps glaringly obvious. One might even wonder if there is any need to work further to understand its impact. But the truth is that social capital has been conspicuously absent from our national conversations over economic policy. Whether in the form of tax cuts or massive redistribution programs, this election cycle has been full of promises to usher in the American Dream through top-down policies. Shockingly, neither side speaks directly to the primary obstacle standing in the way of Americans' achievement of that dream: the sorry state of our community structures.
Even in 2020, politicians are continuing to treat communities as a tangential factor in our overall well-being — something for sociologists, psychologists, and theologians to ponder — instead of what they truly are: the foundation for the health, stability, and prosperity of the American people.
COMMUNITY AND PUBLIC POLICY
Even if we gave the social-capital crisis the attention it deserves, it would remain a problem that federal policymakers are ill-equipped to resolve directly. Social capital exists at the local and interpersonal level; the top-down, one-size-fits-all tools that Washington policymakers have at their disposal are thus poorly suited to improving these conditions. But this does not mean the federal government can do nothing to improve the health of America's communities. Though policymakers are powerless to legislate social capital into existence, they can create the conditions that allow private citizens to more easily build, strengthen, and maintain healthy families and communities.
Families are where we learn to build relationships — where the development of social capital begins. As such, they are among the foundations of healthy communities and the primary generators of economic mobility. Public policy cannot build or sustain family life, but there may be ways for it to lessen some of the pressures that undermine family health and cohesion. Paid parental leave is one example of how this might work. Research reveals that paid parental-leave policies improve the health and economic outcomes of mothers and children by providing more space for the long-term bonding that families need to survive and thrive. Lawmakers could work to adopt and expand paid parental-leave policies that give parents the time to nurture and bond with their newborn or adopted children. A bipartisan Working Group on Paid Leave formed by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution recommends eight weeks of paid parental leave as a baseline for all workers, irrespective of occupation, wage level, or company size.
Education is also key to social capital, as schools offer a place not only for gaining knowledge and skills, but for building relationships. And although high-school graduation rates are at historic highs, one in five students will drop out of school before graduating. These young people are at significant risk of failing to find work and withdrawing from the greater community, which puts them more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol and develop other antisocial behaviors.
A model that Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker put forth decades ago to address this problem is worth revisiting. His proposal, dubbed a "GI bill" for disadvantaged youth, would pay high-school dropouts under age 19 to attend vocational school or receive on-the-job training in connection with an employer. The logic behind this proposal is that the government allocates a certain amount of funding to schools on a per-student, per-year basis, and yet some students inevitably drop out each year. This means that a portion of the funds allocated to schools is no longer being invested in these students' education. Instead of allowing that money to go by the wayside while leaving those former students with few employment options, it would be far better to allow those who drop out of high school to use those resources for vocational training linked to future employment. The benefit here would be twofold: It would help these students find work, and, by doing so, would encourage them to remain connected to their communities.
Work itself is a profoundly important piece of the social-capital puzzle, and not just because it provides household income; it offers people a place of connection and belonging. Yet as AEI's Nicholas Eberstadt has pointed out in these pages, Americans are undergoing a gradual but dramatic flight from work. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, over 7 million working-age men (more than 10% of that population) were neither employed nor seeking employment. For women, workforce participation rates have plateaued and are now at lower levels than those of America's peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The scale of this mounting economic and social crisis has reached staggering proportions in the wake of the pandemic. Yet at the same time, some lawmakers are continuing to push policies that either discourage work (like universal basic income) or eliminate existing jobs (like the $15 minimum wage, which the Congressional Budget Office projects would cost America 1.3 million jobs). Washington should pursue policies that do the opposite.
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one example of a program that has a long history of increasing workforce participation, and policymakers should consider expanding it. The benefits of this policy extend beyond the worker to the worker's family: Evidence suggests that the EITC has positive effects on test scores for children growing up in families receiving EITC benefits, giving them a leg up in entering the workforce later in life. Pregnant mothers receiving EITC benefits are also more likely to seek prenatal care and to abstain from negative behaviors like smoking, resulting in a reduced incidence of low-birthweight infants who are at increased risk of poor health and economic outcomes later in life.
Policymakers would also do well to pursue solutions for the formerly incarcerated that are grounded in rebuilding and strengthening their community ties. According to Brookings, over 620,000 imprisoned Americans are released into our neighborhoods each year. These individuals, who have been cut off from the greater community for months or even years, are forced to start new lives with little to no social capital. It should come as no surprise that an estimated 45% of people who leave prison do not report any earnings in the first full calendar year of their release, or that about a third will end up behind bars once again later in life.
Local organizations tend to be far more familiar with the employment opportunities available in their communities than federal policymakers are, and they are therefore in a better position to help former prisoners build the connections and skills they need to find and maintain employment. An example of such a program is the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which provides assistance to the formerly incarcerated in the form of job-readiness training. The CEO also collaborates with private employers to pair participants with transitional employment opportunities. This integrated method helps former prisoners build social capital and expand their economic mobility, all through individual- and community-level interventions. Another example is Women in Recovery, an intensive outpatient program for women who would otherwise receive lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The women selected for the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based program, which is operated locally in partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, spend 18 months in intensive counseling and workforce training. Importantly, the children of the participants are included in the programming to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Policymakers, particularly at the state and local level, can look for ways to cooperate with such programs or to better enable their work.
To help those Americans who have succumbed to opioid addiction, lawmakers should pursue policies that support treatment approaches embedded in communities of support. Communities undergo unique stressors — they may suffer localized economic shocks, for example, or experience particular crime patterns. Individuals who turn to opioids and other substances may share backgrounds and experiences with others in their communities that they wouldn't otherwise share with people in outside communities. Support that relies on anecdotes grounded in these common experiences may help uncover the root causes of addiction in a particular community. Local clinics can use this knowledge to create solutions tailored to individuals within a given community. What's more, local clinics that use such individualized treatment approaches can humanize the recovery process — something no state or federal bureaucrat can do.
Finally, federal lawmakers can help rebuild local connections and communities by empowering Americans to help one another through charitable giving. When one person gives time or resources to help another, the two become emotionally attached. This "Ben Franklin effect," as psychologists call it, suggests that the very act of giving to others can help bring people together. Unfortunately, according to a recent JEC report, the share of families giving to charity has been steadily decreasing, from 66% in 2000 to 56% in 2014. Moreover, higher-income households are increasingly the ones driving charitable contributions. As the JEC points out, this is a problem. While wealthier households tend to donate to art- and education-related nonprofits, middle- and low-income households are significantly more likely to give to religious institutions and charities that help the poor — two elements of civil society that are most in need of bolstering. The share of families giving to charity is also much smaller among those taxpayers who do not itemize their deductions (40%) than among those who do itemize and can therefore take advantage of the charitable deduction (82%). This is in large part because those who itemize their deductions tend to have greater levels of income than those who take advantage of the standard deduction or have no income-tax liability at all.
Though the disparity reveals that charitable giving is responsive to financial incentives, these incentives are targeted toward the very wealthy. The 2017 tax-reform bill exacerbated this problem by nearly doubling the standard deduction and thus reducing the number of households that can access the charitable deduction. Alex Brill and Derrick Choe found that this change reduced charitable giving the year after the bill went into effect by $15.5 billion as the number of households that itemized — and thus were eligible for the deduction — dropped by tens of millions.
All households, irrespective of income, should be encouraged to help care for their neighbors through charitable giving. Policymakers should thus create a financial incentive for those without an income-tax liability and those who do not itemize their expenses to contribute to charities, just as upper-income families can benefit from the charitable deduction. A common suggestion is an above-the-line deduction, which would allow all households to deduct charitable giving even if they do not itemize their deductions.
In evaluating other policy proposals targeted toward improving economic opportunity, the first question policymakers should ask themselves might be this: Does the policy help provide the space for Americans to restore their connections to one another? Second, they should ask: Are there state or local actors that could provide better and more tailored support within an existing community than federal ones? With these questions in mind, policymakers can look to tackle all sorts of problems related to the social-capital crisis.
BUILDING HIGH-OPPORTUNITY COMMUNITIES
The above proposals seek to increase economic mobility by helping rebuild Americans' social capital indirectly and largely at the federal level. Creating what we call "opportunity councils" and offering local-opportunity vouchers would empower leaders in each community to improve economic mobility directly.
Too often, localities' resources are stove-piped into separate functions — housing, education, family support, etc. There is hardly ever an overarching, comprehensive focus on increasing opportunity or upward mobility. Opportunity councils seek to fill this void.
An opportunity council consists of a broad cross-section of local leaders — school superintendents, mayors or council members, local newspaper editors, and other community members from high- and low-opportunity areas — all focused on collaborating to improve economic mobility in their region. To do so, a council may be authorized to help direct private investment or public resources, run experiments to improve economic opportunities in various neighborhoods, or distribute local-opportunity vouchers to families (more on these below). It may also set up metrics to track improvement in economic opportunity in the locality, perhaps as measured using tools such as Raj Chetty's Opportunity Atlas, which highlights the variance in economic opportunity at the neighborhood level. Along with Erin Melly, we offer further detail on opportunity councils in our AEI paper, "The American Dream in 2020: How to Strengthen It."
The local, comprehensive, cross-sector approach taken by opportunity councils is similar to the model first developed by the StriveTogether education program, founded in Cincinnati in 2006. StriveTogether brings together teachers, parents, students, business leaders, and nonprofits to help improve student outcomes. The key to the program's work is the recognition that no single person or group holds all the answers to a given social problem or the knowledge necessary to develop those answers. Bringing stakeholders from various sectors together, however, can help generate unique, customized solutions to the various issues a community faces. In doing so, they may also indirectly help connect various parts of the community that do not regularly interact, again building the networks that lead to increased social capital among residents.
Another direct approach to replenishing Americans' social capital involves offering people local-opportunity vouchers. This concept builds on the long-standing use of relocation vouchers, which provide people with government assistance to relocate for employment.
The problem with relocation vouchers is that they are often used for interstate relocations, which uproot people from their communities. This further diminishes recipients' social capital and weakens a social fabric that is already fraying. Local opportunity vouchers, on the other hand, are limited to relocating people within the same general metropolitan area or region. As mentioned above, economic opportunity differs significantly from neighborhood to neighborhood, even for neighborhoods within a half-mile of each other. Relocating people to high-opportunity neighborhoods within the same metropolitan area can improve their economic opportunities while maintaining the connections to family members, friends, and institutions that they built in their original neighborhoods. This helps keep individuals rooted and the social fabric of the community intact.
Bundling local-opportunity vouchers with additional personalized services makes them even more effective. A series of experiments in Seattle showed that 54% of families given advice and information about their options in addition to vouchers chose to move to high-opportunity neighborhoods, compared to 14% of families who received only vouchers. Moreover, a 2019 study by Chetty and others suggests that pairing vouchers with such services as addiction support and counseling also helps improve outcomes. These findings highlight the importance of keeping opportunity vouchers a city-level initiative, which allows for a greater level of customization based on the needs of the families and the neighborhoods affected. Efforts should also be made to relocate people to "opportunity bargain" areas — neighborhoods that produce good economic outcomes but are not prohibitively expensive — to prevent further economic hardship.
A RETURN TO COMMUNITY
The unraveling of the American social fabric, especially among lower-income people, has had disastrous ramifications. While each generation of Americans has tended to outperform its parents for as far back as we have reliable data, that escalator flattened out in the 1980s when America's familial and communal life began to fray. As our connections to one another have weakened, feelings of hopelessness and isolation have taken their place, and the American Dream has become less attainable for millions.
This decline in associational life is a particularly vexing challenge for policymakers because the weakening of family and community ties represents a void that public policy cannot fill. The task before them, then, is to help create the kinds of spaces and environments in which families, schools, churches, and voluntary associations will once again flourish. Though politicians and bureaucrats cannot build communities, they can do much to create the broad structures for associational life to thrive at the local level.
This endeavor should be a natural fit for the conservative movement. As William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote in his 1990 book Gratitude, conservatives recognize "connections between the individual and the community beyond those that relate either to the state or to the marketplace." And indeed, until recently, sustaining and improving community health was a significant focus of a movement that recognized how economic freedom was embedded in a shared moral and social reality. Conservatives would be wise to recover that vision.
Abruptly isolated and alienated as a result of the pandemic, many of us are only now beginning to understand just how crucial community is for our way of life — and how unmoored, unstructured, and unsatisfying life can become when our connections to our communities are severed. As the country moves toward re-opening, it is crucial that we remember the power of community in shaping American life. And as we begin to reconnect, let us hope that this memory will propel us to recommit to creating a cultural and political environment in which our communities can flourish.