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New Report Finds The Pandemic Exacerbated Inequality Of Social Capital

When it came to marriage, they found 18 percent of higher-income unmarried adults ‘saw their desire for marriage spike’ while 9 percent ‘saw their desire for marriage decline.’


If we accept the well-established premise that family formation is correlated with quality of life, a sad trend accelerated during the pandemic. New research into important measures of social capital reveals the extent of pandemic-era splintering along partisan and socioeconomic lines.

“In a pandemic-haunted world where both marriage and fertility seem especially daunting, three ingredients have emerged as signally important for family formation in the United States: money, hope, and a deep dedication to family,” a survey released Tuesday found. “And the rich, the religious, and Republicans are generally more likely to possess one or more of these ingredients, compared to their lower-income, secular, and Democrat/Independent-affiliated fellow citizens.”

The study, titled “The Divided State of Our Unions,” was produced as a joint effort between the Institute for Family Studies, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Wheatley Institution. Researchers based their findings on data from YouGov surveys commissioned by IFS and Wheatley this spring and fall, along with General Social Survey data from the last half century.

When it came to marriage, they found 18 percent of higher-income unmarried adults “saw their desire for marriage spike” while 9 percent “saw their desire for marriage decline,” which amounted to “a net increase of 9% in the desire to wed.”

“By contrast,” they wrote, “the net increase was only 4% for middle-income ($50,000-$100,000) and 2% for lower-income Americans (less than $50,000).”

In terms of children, “Twelve percent of upper-income Americans saw their interest in kids rise, whereas 11% reported a decreased desire,” the study found. “By contrast, net desire for kids fell 6% among middle-income Americans and 11% among lower-income Americans.”

“Overall, then,” observed the authors, “only among the rich did interest in having kids remain fairly constant.” The survey also found marriage and children were more popular with religious Americans and Republicans.

As with social capital, evidence suggests trends in wealth inequality were also accelerated by the pandemic. In June, the Wall Street Journal wrote about the “lopsided distribution of the wealth gains” fueled by the stock market.

“More than 70% of the increase in household wealth went to the top 20% of income earners. About a third went to the top 1%,” the Journal observed, adding, “The gains were even more heavily concentrated at the top when Americans were grouped by wealth instead of income.”

Lawmakers and pundits would be wise to pay equal attention to trending inequality in both wealth and social capital. This is deeply problematic for the political establishment, which has long sought to undercut familism even while American elites benefit from it disproportionately. Tim Carney’s “Lena Dunham Fallacy” is instructive here. In “Alienated America,” Tim defines the concept as “the tendency to attribute to decadent elites social phenomena really located among the working class” and to “[blame] cultural shifts away from traditional norms on highly educated, wealthy, white liberals.”

“In short,” Carney wrote, “married people are much less likely to be poor. This is why scholars like Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution see marriage as an antipoverty measure. ‘Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare,’ was the title of a paper she produced in 2003.” It’s also worth remembering, as Lyman Stone has written, that “women report greater childbearing ambitions than they have achieved.”

IFS summarizes the research well:

Women and men who get and stay married tend to be healthier, happier, and better off, compared to their peers who never marry, who divorce, or marry and remarry. Men, for instance, live about nine years longer if they get and stay married. Women are ‘much better off’ in retirement if they are married, rather than divorced or single, as a recent report from the U.S. Department of Labor noted. And communities with a greater share of married parents tend to be safer and more likely to promote economic opportunity for poor children in their midst.

That’s social capital. Increasingly, however, this social capital is increasingly distributed based on financial capital. Of course, as Carney notes, they’re connected. It’s also true that rapidly shifting norms surrounding marriage and children mean shifting expectations and standards of happiness. Along with common sense, the research still suggests those standards may not be healthy.

Recent years have divided Americans in many ways. Most of these divisions were laid bare during the pandemic and exacerbated by its cruelest features. Inequality of social capital is perhaps the saddest and most salient of all these trends given what we know about its connection with quality of life.

Join researchers and panelists (myself included) on Tuesday for a breakdown of this research at AEI.