On Thursday, with an auditorium packed to hear best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, Heritage Foundation scholars unveiled the 2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity, an annual compendium of charts, essays, and expert analysis tracking national social and economic changes.
The policy book features an introduction by Vance and runs 120 pages. With the substantial research at hand, this public discussion could have collapsed under the weight of facts and figures, especially considering that 21 of the 31 social and economic indicators are listed as on the “wrong track.”
Yet, moderated by Heritage Vice President Jennifer Marshall, seven diverse voices shared personal anecdotes from their lives and body of work in a seamless conversation. Different perspectives often converged for insights on culture, family, and poverty that challenge conventional thinking.
1. Because Change Is Local, Think Ten, Not Ten Million
“I see a lot of young folks in the audience,” Vance commented early in his talk. “There is a tendency, especially among millennials—and I say this as someone on the tail end of the millennial generation—to want to make a really superficial difference among ten million people, instead of a really deep difference with ten people.”
Vance continued: “There’s this desire to pass a piece of legislation that’s going to fix these problems and a real failure to recognize that, if you really want to help families like mine, absolutely you should be thinking about federal and state policy. But you should also be thinking about maybe going into these communities with non-profit work, with a business organization, and actually being on-the-ground to address some of these issues.”
“It worries me in our political culture that we’re super-comfortable talking about big change from 30,000 feet, but we’re not as comfortable addressing the small day-to-day changes that are necessary in the life of a community,” Vance concluded. “I encourage people to think about that specific, really narrow, but also deep kind of change.”
2. America’s Worst Kept Secret: Why Marriages Are Falling Apart
Marriage trends came up often among the scholars, including George Mason University professor Helen Alvaré. “The divorce rate is down a bit over the last ten years,” she noted. “But the caveat is fewer people are getting married—and this is more so among the poor.”
“The behaviors we know that are not just correlated, but somewhat causative, for divorce are widely accepted: high rates of pre-marital sexual partnership, out-of-wedlock births, and porn use. There is some honesty about these factors in leading journals, right and left”—sources Alvaré cites in her marriage essay.
“Even though there are great national conversations around all of these issues,” said Alvaré. “They are still perceived to be matters of ‘private choice,’ and therefore very hard to get at culturally.” Alvaré pointed to her team’s new online project I Believe in Love as one grassroots effort to affirm core truths about lasting relationships.
3. Listen to Real People Facing Real Problems
Interjecting on marriage and divorce, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center cautioned that generalizing about people is often unhelpful.
“What I hear too often is ‘Be like me’—with no understanding of what actually leads people to divorce, or actually leads people to be afraid of marriage, because you come from a healthy background that doesn’t allow you to walk in the shoes of somebody else,” Olsen began.
He ticked off examples: “If you haven’t had your spouse assault you physically, if you haven’t had your spouse bankrupt you because they lied and stole all your money, if you haven’t had a spouse who was mentally ill—stories I’ve heard on the dating circuit—you don’t know the depths of the problems and how to reach out to the people you’re talking to.”
“I’m very pro-marriage; I’m anti-divorce,” he concluded. “I’m not trying to say, ‘Get with the times.’ Rather, there are real people facing real problems that don’t happen to everybody.”
4. The Key to an Active, Fulfilling Sex Life
Backing up the conversation to how teens view marriage, Rev. Derek McCoy of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education stated: “We have to challenge teens to think towards marriage.”
“There are big campaigns on abstinence out there, but it’s just ‘wait until’—wait until what? Wait until you just get older and you can think about it differently? That doesn’t work!”
“There are proven stats that say, if you are married—guess what? You’re going to likely enjoy sex more and have it more frequently,” he said, noting recent studies. “People think, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’ Yes, it does! Because you have a long-term committed relationship, and that’s what most people want,” remarked McCoy.
5. The Decline of Youth Baseball Matters, Especially in Communities of Color
To broaden the conversation into parenting, Marshall noted that several scholars were struck by the insights Bill Mattox of the James Madison Institute presented in his essay.
“I talk about baseball,” Mattox began his summary, mentioning legends such as Jackie Robinson. “In baseball circles, there has been this robust conversation in the last 10 to 15 years about the decline in participation among black youth. Fewer and fewer Major Leaguers now come from the African American community.”
“HBO had Chris Rock do this rant about this topic a few years ago, which is absolutely hilarious,” Mattox noted, urging people to watch it online. “But his sociology comes up short in this way: kids growing up in single-parent households, which usually means kids who don’t have a dad to throw a ball in the backyard with them, are not playing baseball as much as previous generations.”
“A researcher at the University of Nebraska went and studied this,” Mattox continued, then cited a key finding. “At the College World Series, 95 percent of the players come from intact, two-parent households.” He concluded: “When kids have access to mom and dad, you see all sort of benefits.”
6. Promoting a Larger Welfare State Isn’t Working
Israel Ortega with The LIBRE Initiative tag-teamed on a similar theme, noting “This got me thinking about the people I work closest with, the Hispanic/Latino community. During the Obama years, there was a time when HHS was running a campaign targeting Hispanic communities, essentially saying, ‘There’s no reason to be ashamed of relying on welfare.’”
“It goes to the heart of what we’re seeing,” said Ortega. “There are two competing undercurrents: one that is encouraging greater government, increasing the size of entitlements and the welfare state; and another one that is looking more at personal responsibility, family, and social institutions to take the role of government.”
“Public policy is going to influence the opportunity that we all have.”
7. Why Reviving the Culture Requires Humility
For his final question, Vance heard from a young woman who asked about what can be done to revive social institutions.
“Part of the mistrust in social institutions comes from the ways in which they have tried to tackle the problem and failed,” Vance responded. “When you try to address a problem, and it’s ineffective, you actually destroy the cultural and political capital necessary to solve that problem.”
“When you go in with a solution to, say, the opioid crisis and it doesn’t work, you actually make people less willing and less comfortable with spending money or spending any other sort of resource on solving that problem.” He counseled: “Approaching these problems with humility would resonate a lot with the people I grew up around.”
“They would say, ‘Okay these people mean well. They recognize that what’s been done in the past doesn’t necessarily work. We’re going to invite them back in, because they’re coming to us with a bit of humility.’ That broad recognition would be helpful.”
Full video and audio of the July 20 event is available online.