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May 20, 2020

Civil Society Was Made for Moments Like This

The spirit of American volunteerism has been on display from the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis: Medical workers have flocked to virus hotspots to help; scientists are volunteering to battle the virus; students are providing childcare for health workers; community volunteers are delivering food to the elderly and vulnerable and sewing thousands of protective masks for hospital workers. The list goes on.

The provision of these services is no doubt vital. But the social capital produced by such civic activity also plays an important role, by protecting against the ills of isolation, such as anxiety and depression, and mitigating financial hardship. In short, if you entered this crisis already embedded in strong personal and social relationships, you are very likely faring better than those who did not.

There is considerable evidence that those who volunteer enjoy better health, higher levels of happiness, and lower levels of stress and depression than those who do not. For example, according to AEI’s survey on community and society, people who do not volunteer are nearly twice as likely than those who actively volunteer in community organizations to say that “things are not too happy these days.” They are also twice as likely to say they often feel isolated from others. Civic life also helps produce a network of “weak ties,” defined as people you know through association but do not consider close friends. These relationships have been shown to be helpful in opening doors and finding new jobs.

All of these benefits of social capital are doubly important during hardship.

It is well-known that a large share of America’s civic life happens through religious congregations. These, in particular, have proved effective at fortifying people’s resilience for times like this. According to the AEI survey, people who do not attend church services are more than three times more likely to report often feeling completely alone than those who regularly attend church services. They are also twice as likely than regular churchgoers to feel left out, not close to anyone, or not part of a group of friends.

One quarter of adults in the U.S., and more than half (56 percent) of black Protestants, say their faith has grown stronger during the pandemic (very few people say their faith has weakened). This sentiment is much more pronounced among those who regularly attended worship services before the pandemic — the majority of whom still regularly worship remotely as most congregations offer online services to keep their members connected.

This connectivity is tailor-made to help people during hard times. According to our survey, members of religious communities are much more willing to provide financial assistance to people they know are in difficult financial situations than the general population. Congregations provide a largely invisible but substantial safety net. So it is perhaps unsurprising that regular churchgoers are more likely to report that they have people they can turn to than those who do not attend religious services.

The family — the bedrock of a civil society — also creates important buffers against shocks like the current pandemic. For example, our survey shows that people who grew up in a household with married parents were more than twice as likely to say they are in excellent financial shape as those coming from households with divorced parents or parents who never married. When asked if they would be able to cover three months’ worth of expenses if they lost their primary source of income, 75 percent of people brought up by married parents responded “Yes,” compared to 61 percent of people who grew up in a divorced household, and 42 percent of respondents whose parents never married.

Of course, a number of factors are at play here, including the effects of growing up in a home with two incomes. But it seems safe to say that married households produce lasting, concrete benefits in people’s lives. As our colleague Brad Wilcox has written, numerous studies show that growing up in a home with married parents produces a range of protections against financial and emotional hardship.  

In sum, the evidence suggests that people who entered the pandemic embedded in the thick fabric of communal and civic life have more resources and options for weathering the storm. But unfortunately, the fabric of our civic, religious, and familial institutions has been thinning for decades, as the excellent work of the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project has shown. This means that the current crisis will disproportionately affect those individuals and communities whose social capital was low to begin with.

Now, more than ever, efforts to rebuild our civic institutions are absolutely vital.

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and David Wilde is a research assistant at AEI.