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.
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 explore the importance of these social ties, both emotionally and financially, 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 6,500 residents of the Reno, Nevada metropolitan area and 8,500 residents of the Chattanooga, TN area in 2016. Additionally, we used data from 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 Reno area plus 100 more for the Chattanooga area.