SALT LAKE CITY — Many Americans — poor, middle class and wealthy — feel that something is amiss in society that can't be reduced to economic anxiety but relates more to a sense that nation's social fabric is fraying, Sen. Mike Lee said.
The Utah Republican says those concerns are reflected in family and community health trends, including the decline in marriage and churchgoing, distrust in the country's institutions, fewer mixed-income neighborhoods and growing numbers of unemployed young men who aren't looking for work.
"We do less together than in the past, and we are worse off for it, economically and otherwise," Lee said.
Lee held a hearing in the Joint Economic Committee last week titled, "What We Do Together: The State of Social Capital in America Today." He is the panel's vice chairman.
The senator's office recently released a report titled "What We Do Together" as part of his Social Capital Project. It concluded that rising affluence has reduced the economic necessity of having close ties with neighbors and traditional institutions. It also highlights the extent to which the growth in two-worker families has affected investment in social capital.
In the committee hearing, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor and author of "Bowling Alone," said there is a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids in the resources they have for upward mobility and the opportunity to be successful.
The opportunity gap causes growing economic inequality, increasing class segregation and collapse of the working-class family, he said. Poorer families, he said, are more fractured and fragile.
"Scholars from various sides of the political divide disagree about exactly why this has happened, the collapse of the working-class family," Putnam said. "But all sides now agree that fragile families are bad for kids."
Poor kids are also isolated from community life, neighbors, clergy and extracurricular activities such as sports and music, he said. That contributes to a gap in mentors like coaches and skills like teamwork and grit and eventually differences in lifetime income, said Putnam, who wrote the 2015 book "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis."
"The explanation is simply yet shocking: pay to play," he said. "When cost-cutting school boards in response to our pressure as voters began charging parents hundreds of dollars a year for kids to play sports, it is no surprise that poor kids dropped out."
Robert Murray, the W.H. Brady scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said a "cultural awakening" needs to occur because the solutions to diminishing social capital are not political.
"I would argue that it is not a matter of ideology but empiricism to conclude that, unless the traditional family and traditional communities of faith make a comeback, the declines in social capital that are already causing so much deterioration in our civic culture will continue and the problems will worsen," he said.
The most common way that the fortunate in society manage to get their priorities straight — or at least not irretrievably screw them up — is by being in a family consisting of married parents and active membership in a faith tradition, Murray said.
Murray said he's not implying that single parents aren't incapable of filling that role — millions of them are striving heroically to do so — nor that children cannot grow up successfully if they don’t go to church.
"As a matter of statistical tendencies, biological children of married parents do much better on a wide variety of important life outcomes than children growing up in any other family structure, even after controlling for income, parental education, and ethnicity," he said.
With regard to religion, Murray said it's a resource that can lead children and adults to do the right thing even when enticements to do the wrong thing are strong. For active members, church is more than a place to worship once a week. It's s a form of community that socializes children growing up in informal ways, just as a family socializes children, he said.
But Murray said he had no policy recommendations for the committee.
"How to bring about that needed cultural awakening? It beats the hell out of me," he said.