What If Politicians Studied the Social Fabric Like Economists Studied GDP?

One of Washington’s most conservative legislators on an age of polarization, inequality, and fragmentation

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah is worried. He is worried about the country’s economic trajectory, given rising inequality, the shrinking of the middle class, and the persistence of intergenerational poverty. And he is worried about its social trajectory, based on growing political and regional polarization, rising distrust in institutions, falling rates of marriage and churchgoing, the dearth of mixed-income neighborhoods, and declining voter turnout.

While he and other legislators seemed to have a decent understanding of the former, Lee told me, sitting in his Senate office last week, they had less data on the latter—trends that in his mind signaled a nationwide loss of social capital. “We have a lot of metrics by which we gauge the health of the economy and the health of the government,” he said. “There are other things that reflect the health of the country in one way or another that aren’t as frequently measured and even less frequently discussed by policymakers.”

An initiative he started this month addresses that imbalance. In a series of hearings and reports, his multi-year Social Capital Project is examining the decline in social cohesion and civic engagement in American life, and drawing legislators’ attention to it. Americans do less together than they did in the past, he said. They trust less. They participate less. And in some cases, they seemed to suffer for it.

It is high-minded and far-reaching stuff. The project’s first report—authored by a Joint Economic Committee research team led by Scott Winship, formerly of the Brookings Institution—cites the Stanford mobility researcher Raj Chetty, the Obama economic adviser Alan Krueger, the groundbreaking Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, and Alexis de Tocqueville, among others. Its first hearing featured testimony from Mario Small and Robert Putnam of Harvard, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, and Yuval Levin of National Affairs.

The report touches on themes popularized in Putnam’s 2001 Bowling Alone and Murray’s 2013 Coming Apart: That Americans are becoming more isolated from people of different backgrounds, and that along with economic distance has come social disconnection. Lee’s report looks at changes in “associational life” since the 1970s, meaning how “the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors” has shifted. Couples are less likely to marry and are having children later in life, though they are spending no less time with their kids, it notes. Organized religion and unions have become far less central. Neighborhoods have stratified by income, with people spending less time with coworkers and neighbors.

“Rising affluence has made associational life less necessary for purposes of gaining material benefits, but that we have lost much by doing less together,” it concludes. People are less likely to need to visit a public library to take out a book, ask a neighbor to borrow their lawnmower, or get a friend from church to pick them up at the airport.

The loss of the “middle layer” between families and the government and a broader fraying of the social fabric seem like somewhat unusual subject matter for a man who is among the most conservative legislators in Washington—one who, for instance, supports a balanced-budget amendment, barring gay marriage, and greatly reducing the federal government’s role in education. If the project did reveal deep scars on civic life, would it be Washington’s job to try to repair them? “I’ve long believed, and I still maintain, that government can’t create institutions. It can’t create civil society. If it tries to, it fails,” Lee told me. “They’re cultural, and they need to remain cultural. So what [the government] needs to be very acutely aware of is that while it can't create them it can harm them. It can undermine them.”

For that reason, he said, he had encouraged the elimination of the marriage penalty—which refers to a couple’s tax rate going up after they start filing jointly—and promoted an initiative to give private-sector workers the same flex-time provisions that government workers have, among other initiatives. “We want parents to be able to have more control over their own schedules so that they can be able to spend time with their families however they may choose to,” he said. And despite his conservative credentials, the senator has supported a number of ideas that break with party orthodoxy to support parents and help communities—including more than tripling the child tax credit and reforming sentencing to reduce the number of nonviolent, low-level offenders in prison.

Lee is aware of the possibility that Washington helped create this feeling of disconnection and distrust in the first place. “We’re only slightly more popular than the influenza virus, which I’m sure is gaining on us,” Lee said. “That, I think, should tell us something.”

Federalism might be one answer to the loss of social capital and disapproval of government, he said. “The Constitution already contemplates that there would be vast regional differences geographically, politically, the way people approach government, how they view the role of government, what they want their government to do, what they’re willing to entrust the government with and what they’re not,” he told me. “When you respect federalism more consistently and faithfully,” he said, “you allow more of the people in America to get more of the government they want and less of the government they don’t want.”

In other words, perhaps one way to get America to come together might be to let American communities grow apart.