The Surprising Geography of Social Capital in America

In a moment scarred by the untimely deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, America has confronted the terrible reality that suicide is on the rise in nearly every state in the country. In 2016, suicides outnumbered homicides by two-to-one. More than half of those that took their own lives had no known mental health conditions. Rather, interwoven with substance abuse, was one of the most pernicious afflictions facing modern America: social isolation.

American life in the past few decades has undergone a dramatic transformation. Reports are emerging of a fraying social fabric disentangling the ties of faith, family, and community. Loosening the ties that bind us as a country to one another has profound effects not only on society but on each of us individually, sometimes to terrible effect. Rising affluence has afforded us independence, but we have yet to count the cost to community.

That is, until now. The Joint Economic Committee’s recently released Social Capital Index found few Americans living in areas with high levels of social capital, a measure of how closely tied we are to our communities and to one another. Nearly 60 percent of Americans reside in the bottom two-fifths of states for social capital. There is an unmistakable divide between north and south, with the bottom tier of states running in an unbroken stretch from Florida to California. New York is the only poorly ranked state that sits outside the South.

Yellow is good, blue is bad

The clustering of social capital in America — and how much it reflects historic migratory patterns, regional culture, and even climate — is truly remarkable. Utah leads the nation in social capital alongside Minnesota and Wisconsin. The leading bloc runs run through the mountain states up through the Dakotas and the Plains to the upper Midwest, while another centers on northern New England.

It seems that wherever Mormons, Scandinavians, and Puritans once settled you will likely find healthy community. More than half of the metros with the highest social capital in America are in Minnesota, and the rest are in Utah, Iowa, and Wisconsin. All of the population centers in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire reside in the upper two-fifths of the ranking. On the other end of the index, there are just 10 counties across the Far South that rank well. Counties with large prisons or Native American reservations do particularly poorly.

Social capital is a single score that’s correlated with a host of things we want, such as economic mobility, healthy families, widespread prosperity, and more — and a lot of things we don’t want, like violent crime, opioid abuse, and digital addictions. “Social capital,” the report concludes, “is almost surely an important fact driving many of our nation’s greatest successes and most serious challenges.”

Policymakers care about things they can measure. So they have metrics that tell them — and us — about the health of our economy and our government. But when conservatives and progressives alike have pointed to an America that’s “coming apart” and “bowling alone,” and lamented critical declines in community and increases in deaths of despair, there has not been a simple measure by which they can match problems with solutions. The Social Capital Index then is an attempt to measure the social fabric like we do our GDP: a simple way to tell a complex story, understanding that the sum is greater than its parts.

The Social Capital Project’s initial report looked at the decline of associational life in America since the 1970s, and found that we do less together and trust each other less too. Faith and family are not as central in our lives. We are marrying less or doing so later in life. We are not as willing as we once were to give of our time or money. Neighborhoods are less neighborly and more divided by income. All of these trends are downstream of the twin forces of economic independence and a culture of expressive individualism. Why borrow flour from your neighbor when you can buy it from Amazon and have it delivered in an hour?

We see signs of America’s depleted social capital at the individual level too. Loneliness in America has reached “epidemic levels” declared a recent survey by Cigna, a health service company. Nearly 50 percent of respondents reported feeling alone or left out always or sometimes. Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, was the loneliest of the lot, even for their ever-present digital tethers. While one survey may not make for an epidemic, Cigna’s findings are consistent with a handful of other studies suggesting a growing emotional reaction to social disconnection. In a way, Americans have purchased loneliness. We are better off, but not necessarily better for it.

Even when we desire community, it may be out of reach. The top fifth of states on the Social Capital Index house just nine percent of the American population, while the bottom fifth contains 29 percent of Americans. In other words, the geography of social capital is remarkably unequal. Often, it seems, due to the legacy of migratory patterns from centuries earlier. As Megan McArdle pointed out, “It looks as if the stronger areas on the map are dominated by settlement from just three of America’s many immigrant waves: Puritans in the 17th century and Scandinavians and Germans in the 19th. The weaker spots, on the other hand, seem to trace the twin realms of Spanish colonialism and King Cotton.”

Policymakers at the federal level may despair with these findings, for it seems there is little they can do to foster social capital in America. Legislation alone cannot reknit our social fabric — neither can money. Social institutions are an emergent phenomena arising out of complex forces in the space between man and the state. Like coral reefs, they are hard to create but easy to kill.

Private solutions may better foster the preconditions of social capital. The philanthropic community could take a cue from the Family Independence Initiative’s effort to place seed money behind neighbors getting together to solve local problems. Other programs that match young people with those in need of eldercare or childcare explicitly use the very ingredients of social capital to fill the isolation where loneliness breeds. Local communities would also be well-served to celebrate the leaders and mentors that actually do the hard work and modeling of service and neighborliness.

Devolving power to the states and localities may also help exercise the atrophied muscles of community. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who spearheads the Social Capital Project, told Annie Lowrey in an interview with The Atlantic that “federalism might be one answer to the loss of social capital and disapproval of government.” Moreover, it is in the realm of local politics where we see policies like zoning that serve to explicitly divide communities. This suggests both that local policymakers are best placed to tackled evidences of anemic social capital, but that they may be part of the problem. Federalism is a means then, rather than an end, to affording states and localities the space to figure out ways to address challenges like suicides, crime, opioid addiction, economic immobility, family breakdown, and more.

Our national conversation on death and despair cannot occur in isolation from the challenges of isolation. Given today’s worrying social trajectory, we need to better understand the state of America’s associational life. For that reason, social capital is perhaps the most important — and underappreciated — concept in American life today.