America is legendary for its commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual. But when he visited the United States in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville saw the genius of America as counterbalancing its healthy regard for the individual with an equal appreciation for family life, religious faith, and community. In his book Democracy in America, Tocqueville recognized that men and women were more likely to flourish if they also were grounded in something larger than themselves—among other things, if there was a sufficient stock of social capital and meaning in their lives.
In recent decades, though, the institutions that furnish that social capital and meaning, and which temper and ground American individualism, have lost ground, as the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam pointed out in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Moreover, since the 1970s, this decline in social capital has been concentrated among working-class and poor Americans. By contrast, more educated and affluent Americans have been much less affected by the decline in social capital. This is true nationally, as well as locally, here in Chattanooga.
We are witnessing a growing divide between college-educated and more affluent Americans and everybody else when it comes to their stock of social capital in four of the nation’s core institutions: marriage, religion, community, and work. A half century ago, there were not large differences by class in men and women’s connections to these institutions. But today, less educated and less affluent men and women in the United States are much less likely to participate in these institutions.
This great divide matters because men and women are social beings—we typically thrive when we are connected to institutions like marriage, religion, community, and work. When Americans have weak ties to these institutions, they are more likely to suffer emotionally and financially. That suffering is real and already widespread. Indeed, one reason that the nation has witnessed a dramatic increase in so-called “deaths of despair”—deaths related to substance abuse and suicide—among the working class appears to be that fewer and fewer working-class men and women are connected to the institutions that bind us to one another and give our lives meaning, institutions like marriage, religion, and work.
We turn now to exploring the importance of these social ties, both emotionally and financially, to men and women around the nation as well as in Chattanooga, and the ways in which those ties are unequally distributed. Our exploration is guided by analysis of the American Community Survey, sponsored by the U.S. Census, drawing upon data from more than 8,500 residents of the Chattanooga, Tennessee metropolitan area in 2016, and the National Survey of Family Life, a 2018 survey of more than 1,000 Americans across the nation that also included an oversample of more than 100 residents of the Chattanooga metropolitan area.
Happiness has become a popular subject of study in contemporary psychology, but the keys to happy living aren’t a secret. Feeling connected to others, whether family, friends, or those with shared interests, is a primary component of happiness. In other words, more social capital often spells more happiness.
Figure 1 captures happiness by levels of religious and civic participation, as well as marital status, among men and women ages 25 to 55 across the United States using data from the National Survey of Family Life. We coded respondents who reported happiness levels of 8, 9, or 10 on a happiness scale of 1-10 as “very happy.” Nineteen percent of those who participate infrequently in religious activities report being very happy, a feeling shared by 39% of frequently attending Americans—that is, those who attend religious services several times a month or more. Similarly, 21% of people who do not volunteer or participate in community groups like the PTA, Meals on Wheels, or the Lions Club are very happy versus 38% of volunteers or participants in such community organizations. In both cases, then, participants report feeling very happy at approximately twice the rate of abstainers. Where marriage is concerned, the gap is even more striking. Fourteen percent of singles say they feel very happy, as compared to 22% of cohabiters and 36% of married adults. In other words, married adults are markedly more likely to report being very happy than single ones.
Similar patterns are evident in our oversample of Chattanooga residents. Although these results are not statistically significant, given that we only have about 100 respondents for this oversample, Figure 1b suggests that men and women in Chattanooga who are involved in the community as volunteers or participants in community groups appear to be happier. And married adults in the region also look more happy than their cohabiting and single peers.
Comparable patterns emerge when it comes to work and happiness in Figure 2. Specifically, men and women ages 25 to 55 across the United States who are employed full-time are more likely to be very happy than their peers who are working part-time or are unemployed. Men who are employed full-time are more than twice as likely to be very happy, at 32%, than their peers who are working part-time (13%) or are unemployed (15%). The gap between women who are working full-time and those working part-time is not large—just 5 percentage points—but the gap between women working full-time and those who are unemployed is large, with 26% of women who are working full-time reporting they are very happy, compared to just 9% of those who are unemployed.
Happiness is also higher among those who appear to be living in accord with what Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution have called the “success sequence,” the data in Figure 3 suggests.3 The success sequence refers to traversing a path into adulthood that includes three steps: 1) getting at least a high school diploma, 2) working full-time, and 3) marrying before having any children. In this analysis, we compare adults who have at least a high school diploma, are working full-time (or are married to someone who is working full-time), and are married to their peers who do not meet all of these criteria.4 According to the National Survey of Family Life, as Figure 3 indicates, 36% of American adults who have at least a high school education, work full-time (or are married to a full-time worker), and are married reported being very happy, while half—only 18%—of those who did not meet all three success sequence criteria reported the same. These results appear to be paralleled in Chattanooga, judging by Figure 3b. In this figure, even though we cannot estimate the effect with a high level of precision given our sample size, the share of residents reporting they are very happy is far higher among those who meet the educational, work, and marital criteria associated with the success sequence than among those have not gotten a high school degree, are not working full-time (or married to someone who is working full-time), or are not married.
Moreover, Figure 4 indicates that women in the Chattanooga metropolitan area ages 25 to 55 who meet the three criteria associated with the success sequence are much better off financially than their peers who have not completed the sequence. Women who have at least a high school education, are married, and are working full- time (or are married to someone who is) have an average household income of $97,649, whereas the average household income of women who don’t meet all three of these criteria is $43,705. Figure 4, which is based on the American Community Survey, indicates that education, work, and marriage are linked to better economic outcomes for Chattanooga-area women, as they are for women across the United States.5
Overall, then, men and women who have stronger connections to the institutions of marriage, religion, community, and work, as well as those who appear to be living in accord with the success sequence, appear to be more likely to be flourishing emotionally. The data also suggests that Chattanooga-area women who meet the three criteria associated with the success sequence are more likely to be flourishing financially.
We have seen that ties to America’s core institutions—marriage, religion, community, and work—are linked to better psychological and financial outcomes for men and women across the United States and in Chattanooga. Nevertheless, those ties are not equally distributed. Both nationally and in Chattanooga, the more educated and affluent are generally more likely to marry, be involved with religious congregations, volunteer and participate in community life in large numbers, and work, than their less educated and less affluent fellow citizens.
Consider, for instance, how the proportion of Americans who attend religious services at least two to three times per month is stratified by class. Figure 5 illustrates that regular religious participation is evident among only 37% of those who lack a college degree, but 50% of those with a college degree. When we look at class measured in terms of income, 34% of lower-class Americans regularly attend religious services, as opposed to 45% of the middle class and 47% of the upper class. Figure 5b suggests that similar trends are playing out in Chattanooga. In our oversample of the region, 48% of college-educated residents attended church frequently, compared to only 33% of less educated residents, and a divide is also manifest when we break out religious attendance by upper-class versus middle-/lower-class residents of the region. Given the size of the Chattanooga sample in the National Survey of Family Life, we cannot estimate the effect with a high level of precision, but the class difference here is consistent with national trends.
Americans’ civic participation shows the same patterns by education and class as their religious involvement, according to the National Survey of Family Life. Fifteen percent of Americans with less than a college degree volunteer or participate in community organizations, Figure 6 shows, while more than double the proportion of college graduates do. When considering volunteerism and community engagement by class, 14% of lower-class Americans, 18% of middle-class Americans, and 34% of upper-class Americans volunteer or participate in local institutions. Community engagement is therefore more than twice as common among upper-class Americans as it is among the lower class. Figure 6b suggests that community engagement is also more prevalent among highly educated and more affluent men and women in the Chattanooga metropolitan area. Here again, given that we are drawing on a sample of only about 100 Chattanooga residents, these results are not statistically significant, but the class divide they depict is consistent with the trends we see in the nation at large.
Class divides are equally dramatic in Americans’ romantic relationships and family lives. “Poor Americans are almost three times more likely to cohabit, and working-class Americans are twice as likely to cohabit, compared with their middle- and upper-class peers age 18-55,” previous analysis has shown. Seventy-seven percent of middle- and upper-class girls live with both their biological parents at age 14, compared with only 55% of both poor and working-class girls the same age. The greater likelihood of cohabitation and divorce among the poor and working class means that those households are not only less stable but also have fewer financial and emotional resources to devote to any children they may have, because the parents are already likely to be stretched thinner.
This is not only a national issue. It affects Chattanooga, too. As the first part of Figure 7 demonstrates, among adults ages 25 to 55 in metro Chattanooga, only 49% of those without a high school diploma are currently married, whereas 56% of high school graduates and those with some college education are, and 68% of those with at least a bachelor’s degree. When those figures are viewed through an economic prism, 32% of lower-class Chattanoogans are married, compared to 64% of the metro area’s middle class and 81% of its upper class. Note also that because Figure 7 draws on a large sample of Chattanooga residents from the American Community Survey, we are confident that these differences are statistically significant.
When children are factored into the equation in the first part of Figure 8, 31% of metro Chattanooga’s children with mothers who dropped out of high school are living outside a two-parent home, compared with 26% of children whose mothers completed high school or some college and only 12% of children whose mothers earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Again, looking at the data from an economic perspective reveals even starker divides: 46% of Chattanooga’s children living in lower-class homes are not being raised by two parents, as opposed to 18% of children in middle-class homes and 7% of those in upper-class homes.
Finally, Figure 9 reveals that there are also major class divides in full-time work, for both men and women in the Chattanooga metropolitan area. About 90% of college-educated and upper-class men ages 25 to 55 are employed full-time, whereas between 52% and 86% of their less educated and less affluent peers are working full-time. For women, more than 70% of college-educated and upper-income women ages 25 to 55 are working full-time, versus between 23% and 66% of their less educated and lower-income peers. So, in the Chattanooga area, those with the most advantages appear to be most likely to be connected to the workforce.
When he visited America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the vibrant character of religious, civic, and familial life in the United States. For instance, in Democracy in America, he wrote, “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention,” adding, “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.” His point was that religion fostered a sense of social solidarity, meaning, and moral direction that grounded the freedoms Americans enjoy. We would add that the institutions of family, civil society, and work have also grounded the exercise of freedom in America.
Indeed, this report suggests that at both the national and local levels, men and women with stronger ties to marriage, community, and work are more likely to achieve happiness and financial success. Unfortunately, we also find a great divide in social capital across the nation and in the Chattanooga area.
Several decades of cultural, policy, and economic changes have destabilized many families, eroded religious and community organizations, and undercut native-born men’s connection to stable work. This erosion has been concentrated—we have seen—among poor and working-class men and women.
Today, too many working-class and poor Americans in Chattanooga and elsewhere are hurting and vulnerable, as they face family instability, addiction, or general despair in their families and communities. The fact that so many are also disconnected from religious and community institutions only makes their alienation more profound—as evidenced in the recent surge in deaths of despair across Tennessee and the nation at large.
To bridge this great class divide, and to bolster the social capital of families in the Chattanooga area, civic, religious, and political leaders should unite around a public service campaign, similar to those that targeted drunk driving and teen pregnancy, urging young people to commit to following the success sequence and offering support as they work toward that goal. This campaign would be designed to discourage young adults from taking steps—like dropping out of high school or having a child before marriage—that often set people on a path towards poverty and family instability, and instead encourage them to achieve goals—finishing high school, getting a full-time job, and marrying before having any kids—that increase their odds of flourishing financially and enjoying a stable family life.
This type of initiative needs to be paired with religious and philanthropic efforts, as well as policy reforms, designed to increase the stock of social capital in the Chattanooga area. Local religious and community organizations need to be more intentional about tailoring their messages and their outreach strategies to poor and working-class Chattanooga residents. Finally, public and private efforts to expand job training and apprenticeship opportunities for young adults getting started in the workforce, as well as for adults looking to move into a new line of work, would be a worthwhile investment. Such programs could help close the gap in employment between more advantaged and less advantaged Chattanooga residents.
Strengthening families, connecting more men, women, and children to local religious congregations or community organizations, and improving employment opportunities will make for a happier, healthier, and more prosperous Chattanooga. If ever there were a good cause, it is this: Chattanooga residents should rally to help their fellow citizens, maximizing the number of people who can enjoy the benefits afforded by having a substantial stock of social capital. The secret to a happy life, for most, is being meaningfully connected to core institutions such as faith, family, work, and community. The challenge that remains is to reverse the decades-long decline in marriage, work, and religious and civic engagement—including among the less privileged in Chattanooga.