Policy Report: WILL Examines How Declining Social Capital is the Root Cause to Many Societal Problems


The News: The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) released a new report assessing the impact declining levels of social capital (the collection of interpersonal relationships that unite a heterogeneous society) has on Wisconsin communities. Fraying Connections: Exploring Social Capital and Its Societal Implications is the first of three reports that focuses on social capital and compares how Wisconsin’s communities stack up to other states.  

The Quote: Miranda Spindt, WILL Policy Associate, stated, “Loneliness and mental health issues have radically increased in American society and declining social capital is a root cause. WILL is doing a deep dive into why social capital is so important to advance a pluralistic society, what Wisconsin is doing right, but also what needs to change. It’s critical that we advance this discussion and debate for the betterment of communities in Wisconsin and across America.”  

What is Social Capital? Though the concept of social capital has many definitions, for this work we define it as the collection of interpersonal relationships that unite a heterogeneous society toward shared goals. Having a strong bond with family members serves as a foundation for how we build relationships with others. The relationships that individuals have with their family, friends, communities, and institutions have changed significantly. 

Social capital can lead to increased economic productivity as well. Relationships between high and low-income families are linked to better economic outcomes for low-income children when they reach adulthood as they can be exposed to more educational and career opportunities.   

We are more isolated and less trusting than ever, which affects almost every aspect of our lives as part of a broader community and society. The mental health crisis and lower economic mobility can be linked to decreasing social capital.  

Key Findings from Our Report:  Between 1973 and 1994 the number of Americans who attended even one public meeting on town or school affairs in the previous year decreased by 40 percent. 

The Surgeon General declared loneliness an epidemic in the United States in 2023. Depressive feelings were reported six times more in the first six months of the pandemic than in 2019.  The numbers among young adults are particularly staggering, 79% of young adults aged 18 to 24 report being lonely compared to 41% of adults older than 66 years. 

Loneliness and social isolation have also been linked with increases in negative and violent behaviors, and studies have shown that it is the leading factor in those who commit mass shootings.  Loneliness also leads to higher risks of dementia, heart disease and stroke.   

How Wisconsin Stacks Up: In our report we pull data from the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress which began researching the associational life of Americans in 2017 and released their own Social Capital Project. They collected data on 26 variables that they sorted into seven subindices which are broken down below with how Wisconsin ranks among the 50 states:  

Family Unity – Percentage of births to unmarried women, women currently married, and children with a single parent. Wisconsin ranks 16th. 

Family interaction – Percentage of children who are read to every day in the past week, children who watched four or more hours of television in the past week, and children who spent four or more hours on an electronic device in the past week. Wisconsin ranks 9th. 

Social Support – Percentage of people who get emotional support sometimes, rarely or never, neighbors who do favors at least once a month, people who trust most or all their neighbors, and the average number of close friends. Wisconsin ranks 3rd. 

Community Health – Percentage of people who attended a meeting which discussed politics in the last year, participated in a demonstration, volunteered for a group, attended a public meeting, worked with neighbors to fix something, served on a committee or as a group officer, and the number of organizations per 1,000 people. Wisconsin ranks 7th. 

Institutional Health – Percentage of people with some or great confidence in corporations to do the right thing, some or great confidence in media, some or great confidence in public schools, the census response rate and voting rate in presidential elections. Wisconsin ranks 2nd 

Collective Efficacy – The rate of violent crimes per 100,000 people. Wisconsin ranks 21st. 

Philanthropic Health – The percentage of people who made a charitable contribution. Wisconsin ranks 3rd. 

In this overall ranking of 50 states, Wisconsin ranks 3rd in social capital, behind only Minnesota (2nd) and Utah (1st) and far above other Midwestern states like Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana.  

What’s Next: Future reports in our social capital series will dive into technology and social media as the primary driver of the decline and discuss multiple solutions from government policy to individual actions that can help rebuild social capital. Social capital will become an underlying theme in some of our policy work and initiatives.   

Read more: 
Fraying Connections: Exploring Social Capital and Its Societal Implications, May 2, 2024 

Miranda Spindt

Miranda Spindt

Policy Associate

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