SALT LAKE CITY — Regardless of what’s in their bank accounts, Utah residents are the wealthiest Americans when it comes to “social capital,” the vital network of personal relationships that enables individuals and communities to succeed, a bipartisan report released Wednesday said.
The report, “The Geography of Social Capital in America,” contains the first findings of the Social Capital Project begun last year by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.
The multi-year initiative is investigating the nature, quality and importance of Americans’ relationships, what sociologists commonly call “associational life.”
Or, as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, put it, “These are the original social networks. … Not to suggest that electronic social networks are not also significant in their own way, but these are the ones that are very profound in their impact.”
By coincidence, the report was released as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about the social-media company he says “connects the world.”
The research suggests, however, that it’s face-to-face connections that matter most in our collective well-being, the same “spirit of association” that French historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed on his travels here in 1831.
In many parts of America, those connections are weakening, according to the new Social Capital Index, released in Wednesday’s report.
Just 8 percent of Americans live in counties that rank high in social capital; 39 percent of us live in counties near the bottom. And of the 20 states with the poorest rankings, 17 are in the South.
The poorest performing states are suffering the effects of societal changes that have diminished the quantity and strength of Americans’ relationships. These changes include smaller families, lower church membership and attendance, diminished engagement with neighbors and less volunteerism, according to the committee’s initial report, published last year.
Lee, who leads the initiative as vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, said the index, compiled from existing government data, gives policymakers a comprehensive look at the factors that contribute to strong families and strong communities.
“This isn’t just a report; it’s a tool,” he said.
“The index gives us a lens through which we can examine the problems and solutions going forward. And it can help us evaluate what it is that government might be doing to make things either better or worse.”
The top 10
After Utah, the rest of the top 10 are Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.
Louisiana ranks last among the 50 states and Washington D.C. The others in the bottom 10 are Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, New York and Alabama.
Utah’s No. 1 ranking is primarily due to its strong families, the data reveal.
Utah’s marriage rates are historically higher than the rest of the nation, and in the committee’s analysis, the state ranked No. 1 out of 51 in “family unity” and “social support,” as well as in “philanthropic health" (which means the percentage of people giving money to charity).
Neighboring Idaho, although 16th on the list overall, was the runner-up in family unity, at No. 2. The worst performers in that category were the District of Columbia and Mississippi.
Cindy Knotts, of Santaquin, Utah, is one of the reasons for Utah’s high rankings. The mother of seven children and the grandmother of 14, she works part-time at Eagala, a Utah-based nonprofit.
She fits the bill for charitable giving, something else that researchers examined. Knotts and her husband are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which encourages its members to tithe 10 percent of their earnings. Her own family also reflects Utah's preponderance of large families who stay in touch with each other.
Although her children are grown and have young children of their own, they make it a point to talk about once a week. Knotts believes that their faith keeps the family happy and strong. “I live in Utah County, and they call it Happy Valley,” she said.
Although Utah’s religiosity is well-known, researchers said that religious adherence and commitment alone did not appear to play much of a role in the rankings. Mississippi, for example, is among the most religious states, according to the Pew Research Center, but is 45th in social capital.
A significant factor in the ratings, however, appears to be population density. States and counties that are densely populated generally have the lowest levels of social capital, while more rural states with fewer residents have the highest levels of social capital, possibly because people tend to know more of their neighbors in small cities and towns.
America’s ‘relationship status’
The report and index offer a deep dive into measures of well-being that are often overlooked when analysts consider how Americans are doing. That’s partly because associational life is harder to measure than, say, unemployment or the gross domestic product.
Too much of a focus on economics, however, may lead to the wrong diagnosis of social ills, the report says.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and the University of Utah’s Ed Diener are among those who have studied social capital and its effect on communities. In his book “Bowling Alone,” published in 2000, Putnam assessed five factors — community organizational life, engagement in public affairs, community volunteerism, informal sociability and social trust – to rank states in social capital.
The new index goes substantially further, analyzing well-being at both the state and county level, and considering a sweeping range of factors that include number of children living in a single-parent family, the number of families in which someone read to a child every day, the number of close friends reported by adults, the number of adults who have volunteered or attended a public meeting in the past year, and the number of adults who have worked with neighbors to improve or fix something within the past year.
The research also takes into account factors such as the number of registered, non-religious nonprofits in the community, the number of religious congregations and the number of people who voted in the previous two presidential elections, and who returned census forms.
All together, the data provide an unprecedented analysis of what Facebook might call America’s “relationship status.”
It includes 2,992 of the nation’s 3,142 counties, all 50 states and the District of Columbia, said Scott Winship, the project director for the Joint Economic Committee.
In the future, the committee will delve into the reasons some areas fare better than others, and what sorts of policy changes the data might suggest. They’ll also look into topics such as loneliness, deaths of despair, and disconnected men, Winship said.
“These are pretty tough questions, I don’t think there are easy policies that anyone can cite today about how you rebuild these muscles,” Winship said, although he said that one thing that members are interested in looking at is whether some issues are better addressed at the local, instead of federal level.