The 2016 election cycle revealed a deeply unsettled spirit in many Americans. The unease they feel about their future, their families, their communities and their country was palpable. What are the sources of this discontent?
We often hear about job and wage numbers, but the issue here is more than just economic. Across America, the marriage rate is declining, religious attendance is drifting downward and teen drug use is increasing. Family and faith have helped ground and direct generation after generation throughout human history. We cannot ignore their erosion if we hope to address current anxieties.
These cultural indicators and many others are charted in The Heritage Foundation’s just-released 2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity and they point to problems that Washington can’t ultimately solve. But neither can it afford to overlook them.
“Reform divorced from an understanding of culture is a recipe for spending money, wasting time, and doing very little good,” writes J.D. Vance in the introduction to the index. Vance’s June 2016 bestselling book “Hillbilly Elegy” has captured the current state of unsettlement better than any other description, vividly telling the story of “a family and culture in crisis.”
As Vance points out, one of the challenges in responding to this crisis is the absence of easy policy fixes for what’s ailing America. Reading the 30 contributors’ essays in the Index of Culture and Opportunity underscores his point. Policy can begin to address some of the challenges but it can fully resolve almost none of them.
Addressing today’s social and economic challenges is hard work that will require everyone’s contribution. Some obstacles — like Obamacare’s burdensome regulations driving up health insurance costs — are the result of federal policy that leaders in Washington must act urgently to remove.
As the index shows, the amount of money taxed away by the federal government has risen in the last decade, and the number of economically significant regulations has increased. That puts burdens on families, charities and ministries that provide the stability that communities and especially young people need to thrive. It also undermines these institutions’ capacity to be the first line of defense when trouble comes.
Meanwhile, food-stamp participation is way up, along with overall government welfare spending. Providing a safety net for those truly in need is one thing. But an ever-expanding welfare state that encourages long-term government dependency on taxpayers’ dime is unfair to those working hard to provide for themselves and their families.
What’s more, it hurts those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. As syndicated columnist Cal Thomas puts it in his index commentary, “Handouts with no expectation of personal responsibility rob individuals of their dignity.”
The decline in unemployment in recent years is good news on its face but behind the trend is an employment-to-population ratio that tells a more troubling story. Many Americans have simply stopped looking for work and therefore are not counted in the unemployment rate. As researcher Nicholas Eberstadt explains, “There are three prime-age men neither working nor looking for work for each prime-age man who is technically ‘unemployed.’”
Challenges like these show why tackling today’s social challenges cannot be relegated entirely to policymakers and also require responsibility close to home. High rates of prisoner recidivism, for example, won’t be changed without communities committing to reintegrating ex-offenders. Jon Ponder’s Las Vegas-based Hope for Prisoners points the way in a story he relates in the new index. Restoring marriage and reducing unwed childbearing, critical to expanding opportunity, will require new initiative on the part of communities, religious congregations and others.
Most conversations about opportunity focus on economic indicators such as unemployment and job creation. But opportunity springs from much more than that. Early in an individual’s life, family and community have a lot to do with whether he or she will be able to reach and grab hold of the opportunities of education and economic freedom offered later in life.
Heritage’s 2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity (heritage.org/culture) gives many reasons for concern — and at least as many reasons for hope. American leaders and citizens alike will need to call on all their policy and cultural ingenuity to tackle the concerns and bring those hopes to fruition.
Jennifer A. Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C., 20002; Website: www.heritage.org. Information about Heritage’s funding may be found at http://www.heritage.org/about/reports.cfm.