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What Happens When the Social Web Unweaves

Senator Mike Lee's Social Capital Project turns its attention to the fraying fabric of society.

The rise of unwed childbearing began in the 1960s and continues still today, with 40 percent of children born out of wedlock. In this recent piece for The Weekly Standard I wrote about Senator Lee’s research on this and other aspects of “associational life.” Who can doubt that children of stable, married couples have better life prospects than children born to single mothers?  

Senator Mike Lee, the Utah Republican, is vice chairman of the little known Joint Economic Committee. Congress created the committee in 1946, its job basically to review economic conditions and recommend policy improvements. Economic concerns dominated in those post-war years, but today, Lee told me, it’s hard to get a “true picture” of the country without taking into account things that are much harder to measure than, say, gross domestic product. Those things involve “associational life.”

That term, for Lee, is shorthand for the web of social relationships through which people pursue joint endeavors—families, communities, workplaces, and houses of worship. It is through associational life, he says, that Americans form their “character and capacities” as they find “meaning and purpose.”

It takes no great reporting skills to say that all is not well with associational life in the United States. Lee believes it needs to be studied, just as the economy is. A year ago he started the Social Capital Project, a multi-year inquiry into the nature, quality and importance of associational life. Located within the Joint Economic Committee, it is run by Scott Winship, the scholar of social policy formerly with the Manhattan Institute and the Brookings Institution. Already the project has issued three reports: the first, on social capital trends, the second, on opiods, and the third, on “the rise in unwed childbearing.”

However, the project does not expect to propose any policies this year, and perhaps not even next. This is indeed a long-term endeavor. What seems more likely in the short run is the development of ways of measuring “social capital,” the sources of which are many, including education and the workplace. Lee is seeking what he calls “the metrics of happiness.” Necessarily, under such metrics, a person can be more or less happy, more or less advantaged.

The most important relationship that people have in their lives, says Lee, is “the one children have with their parents.” But since the middle of the last century, the two-parent model of child-bearing—the foundation of “a healthy associational life”—has been seriously compromised.

The project reports that in 1960, 5.3 percent of children were born to single mothers. But by 2008 that number had jumped to 40 percent, and it has been even higher for children born to mothers who are under 30. Today almost six in 10 first births to women under the age of 30 take place outside of marriage, and two in three first births are from nonmarital conceptions. It is well-documented that children of stable, married couples tend to outperform children of single parents.

The project is handling with care this matter of unwed childbearing. Thus, says Lee, increased sexual activity would seem to be the obvious cause of the jump in the numbers. But “our research found two even larger factors . . . [that] there are [more never-married] women, and [that] the cultural norm often referred to as the ‘shotgun’ marriage has all but disappeared.” Lee observes that those two trends are “very complicated” and—a startling point—“appear to be a result of an increase in affluence and opportunity” in society generally.

If the Social Capital Project winds up providing a truer picture of the country, that could inspire reforms designed to strengthen associational life. Lee has taken on a worthy challenge, and it will require patience and perseverance to see it through.