- The latest report from the Social Capital Project outlines a policy agenda focused on strengthening families and communities. Tweet This
- The Social Capital Project's emphasis on married parents rather than just two parents shows that the report’s authors understand that when it comes to the social capital effects of family structure for children, marriage still makes a big difference. Tweet This
“Economic wealth is no doubt important,” said U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), chair of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC), during his opening remarks at a JEC hearing on April 30. “But to see opportunity exclusively in those terms fails to [adequately] capture an invaluable source of wealth on which human beings draw and one that is in fact key to expanding opportunity: social capital."
As Senator Lee referenced in his remarks, public policy discussions about mobility too often focus on economic factors and goals. While economic well-being is certainly part of the success equation, it is intimately connected to another that too often gets pushed to the sidelines—the health of our families and communities.
A new report released last week by the JEC’s Social Capital Project, “The Wealth of Our Relations,” is a welcome change in that it makes the promotion of social capital the focus of how we think about opportunity and the government's role in advancing it. In the past two years since it was launched by Sen. Lee, the Project has produced several reports documenting trends related to our social capital as a nation (we’ve covered a few here, here, and here). The latest report outlines a policy agenda that is based on strengthening our most foundational relationships—family, community, and civil society.
To that end, the report begins with an extensive overview of the connection between social capital promotion and opportunity, explaining that, "opportunity depends on social capital—what is available to us from our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, congregants, coworkers, and others. In particular, the people to whom we are born and around whom we live are consequential for our opportunities."
It goes on to detail five policy goals the Project intends to pursue, including the first two goals that are focused on improving the formation and well-being of families.
At the top of the list is one that Sen. Lee recently discussed in an interview with IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox—making family formation more affordable. In that interview, the senator stated, “Not only is it important for Americans to be able to afford to start and expand families but having the time to nurture new life is likely to produce healthier children down the road.”
The report expands on this point, aptly describing the family as “the most important source of social capital for most people,” and pointing out that “if a large or growing number of men and women cannot afford to start or expand a family in line with their preferences, that represents a profound loss that merits national attention.”
It points to America’s declining marriage and fertility rates and explores a number of possible explanations for the decline. One option: higher educational attainment and employment for women have led to delays in both marriage and childbearing, and this, along with men being generally unwilling to do their equal share of work at home, has put more pressure on women, which “has weakened our associational life” and made it harder to raise a family. Another explanation offered is that “economic deterioration” is driving women’s workforce participation and, put more bluntly, that “wives have had to bail out their husbands due to their falling wages and employment.”
The next phase of the Social Capital Project will focus on determining which of these or other explanations is more accurate and on building policy solutions around the answer. As to the specific policies that might make it easier for Americans to have the families they desire, the report offers few specifics (which will be the focus of future reports). Work-family policies will be a major focus, and Sen. Lee has already introduced a paid leave proposal. Other ideas include targeting public policy interventions at lower-income families, being careful that policies do not penalize families who want to have a stay-at-home parent, and (related to the Project’s second policy goal) promoting the healthiest two-parent family structure.
"Opportunity depends on social capital—what is available to us from our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, congregants, coworkers, and others. In particular, the people to whom we are born and around whom we live are consequential for our opportunities."
The second policy goal is focused on improving the structure of the families that Americans are forming by "increasing how many children are raised by happily married parents.” The authors reference the research on single-parent families and child well-being, and note:
We don’t need to determine how well the academic literature estimates the typical effect on children of growing up with a single parent. We only need to stipulate that children generally are happier, healthier, and better prepared for life when they have two happily married parents rather than a single parent.
The report then offers a detailed description of the often-ignored struggles that many children of divorce and/or single-parent families face by contrasting their experience to children in married- families, who:
get to see both parents every day, spend the holidays with both, and they don’t have to feel guilty about spending or enjoying more time in one household than the other. Nor do they have to question whether they caused their parents to break up. They have a single set of household rules, a single bedroom and wardrobe. Their schedule does not depend on which parent they are staying with. ... And they avoid having to adjust to the changing romantic lives of their mother or father—changes which can include disruptive remarriages and family-blending.
Although cohabiting-parent families are not specifically mentioned in the report, we know that children today who are born outside of marriage are increasingly born to unmarried mothers who are cohabiting, often with their child's father. In fact, one recent study found that three out of five children born to unmarried women in recent years were born in a cohabiting union. But despite its prevalence, cohabiting parenthood is still not equal to married parenthood, especially when it comes to the stability children need to thrive. For example, the 2017 World Family Map found that children raised by cohabiting parents are twice as likely to see their parents split by the time they turn 12, compared to those raised by their married parents. And children in cohabiting families are more likely than children in married-parent families to experience negative outcomes like poverty. The Social Capital Project's emphasis on married parents shows that the report’s authors understand that when it comes to the social capital effects of family structure for children, marriage still makes a big difference.
Just how to increase the amount of children who are born and raised in married-parent families will continue to be the subject of policy debates, but the Social Capital Project endorses a few ideas that we have covered at IFS, including “fostering the conditions that lead to more happy marriages,” assistance for fragile families, efforts to improve the employment prospects of men, and eliminating marriage penalties in the tax code and welfare programs.
Other policy goals covered in the report include increasing employment opportunities, improving how we invest in interventions aimed at young people, and rebuilding civil society. All five goals are in some way focused on strengthening our core relationships because, as the report puts it, social capital “is the stuff of which life is made.”
We know that stable, married families are linked to healthier and more prosperous individuals, communities, and nations across the globe. A national policy agenda that not only recognizes the connection of marriage to our social and economic well-being but also makes strengthening the relationships that shape and sustain us the central focus of that agenda is long overdue.