WASHINGTON – It’s time to take a brief break from Donald Trump. Whatever you think of him, there’s no denying that he dominates the news cycle. We seem to assume that the nation’s future depends on Trump’s fate, for better or worse. The reality is otherwise: The nation’s future also hangs on larger economic and social trends that no president can shape.
A new report from the congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) reminds us of this. The report examines the nation’s “social capital.” Now, social capital is an obscure academic term that, essentially, signifies the ability of people to work and play together – to cooperate and connect with others. The stronger a society’s social capital, the less isolated and powerless people feel. The news here is cautionary; our social capital is depleting.
The JEC study assessed social capital in four realms – family life, the workplace, religion and community – and found it weakening in all four. Here’s a brief summary of the report’s conclusions, which are based on scholarly studies and public opinion surveys.
Family life: Marriages are down; out-of-wedlock births are up. In 2015, nearly a third of all children (31 percent) were being raised by single parents or no parent at all, up from 15 percent in 1970. Over the same period, births to single mothers jumped from 11 percent of all births to 40 percent. Marriage rates plunged. In 1970, there were 76.5 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women over 15; by 2015, the rate was 32.Work: The main trend was the gradual entrance of millions of women into the job market. In 2015, 74 percent of prime-working-age women (25-to-54) were in the labor force, up from 35 percent in 1948. However, there were social costs. There was more “reliance on markets for child care” and “community-based” volunteer work suffered. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of low-skilled men dropped out of the labor force.Religion: Fewer Americans feel loyal to organized religion. In the early 1970s, about seven in 10 adults were members of a church or synagogue, and slightly more than half attended services at least once a month. Now, only slightly more than half (55 percent) belong to churches and synagogues, and monthly attendance has dropped to about 40 percent.Community: There’s been a broad erosion of public trust. In Gallup polls, only 36 percent have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, but that rating is higher than for schools (30 percent), banks (27 percent), newspapers (20 percent), business (18 percent) and Congress (6 percent). In addition, the share of the voting-age population that actually registered fell from 72 percent in 1972 to 65 percent in 2012.The institutions that provide social stability and personal contentment seem to be in retreat. The fact that one-third of children are raised by single parents cannot be good. Neither is the loss of confidence in major institutions. As private institutions weaken, pressure mounts on government to fill the void, but the effect is to place more demands of government than it can meet, contributing to its unpopularity.
Remember, however, that some of these changes have also created huge benefits. Women’s entrance into the paid labor force has both raised household incomes and provided satisfying careers for millions. We must also guard against exaggerating adverse effects. The JEC study reports that parents still spend the same amount of time with their children as before, despite the pressures of balancing work and family. Similarly, one study shows that some types of volunteering have increased since the 1970s.
Perhaps slightly faster economic growth and higher wages would alleviate some social and economic tensions. But economic growth is not a panacea for all our problems and worries. Indeed, paradoxically, greater wealth and affluence are the causes of some of our discontents, as the JEC report acknowledges.
“The increases in dual-income and single-parent families reflect the rising affluence of our nation, not growing hardship,” it says. “Technological innovation reduced the amount of time it took to maintain homes. ...Even the growth in single parenthood reflects rising affluence. More women are able to support children on their own ...due to their increased earnings. So too, the public safety net for single parents, while by no means allowing a lavish existence, is sufficiently generous to facilitate single parenthood.”
To some extent, the future of America depends on Donald Trump. But it depends even more on how these social and economic trends evolve – how we cope with them and whether we become a more cohesive society or a more contentious one. Trump is not destiny. For better or worse, we are.
Robert Samuelson is a columnist for The Washington Post. © 2017 The Washington Post Writers Group.