The American dream has always been simple. Most people seek to get an education and a job, start a family, and enjoy their community. But increasingly, this dream is becoming attainable only for the wealthy and out of reach for the great bulk of Americans. Social capital is depleting: education, work, family, and community no longer sustain American society as they once did.
Social capital, which is the rich network of relationships that sustain individuals, can be measured by some key indicators, all of which are down: church attendance, friendships among adults, neighborliness, nonprofit giving, and volunteering. Meanwhile, trust in our national government, politicians, media, large corporations, national media, and each other is at historic lows.
Social capital has been studied by a variety of scholars across the political spectrum for decades now. But one area that deserves more focus from policymakers is the crucial formation we receive in the earliest years of life, ages zero to three. As attachment theory (which I will discuss in more detail later) suggests, the care and support we receive—or don’t receive—during these years play a vital role in our ability to attain and preserve social capital throughout our lives. The importance of these years is the reason I’ve worked with a group of think tank scholars in Washington, DC to create a resource for 2024 presidential candidates. These publications feature research from a variety of scholars, and offer an “off the shelf” policy platform that addresses ways to rebuild social capital, with a particular focus on our youngest years.
Class and Social Capital
The class-based differences in social capital are key to understanding how early childhood circumstances can shape social capital throughout a lifetime. In one study, Brad Wilcox drew our attention to the widening gap by class between those aged 18–55 who are currently married: 60 percent of the wealthy, 40 percent of the working class, only 20 percent of the poor. This gap didn’t exist in the 1970s. This has ramifications. There are strong correlations between stable family life and upward social mobility, especially in neighborhoods with high rates of stable marriages. This is because relationships are role-modeled, “caught not taught.” If you do not see marriage role-modeled to you, you are less likely to be able to build your own. Meanwhile, those who are wealthy continue to accumulate both social capital and financial capital. These disparities suggest that widening wealth inequality in America today, which rivals that of Russia, could also be creating a wide social capital cleavage between rich and the less well off.
We saw these disparities clearly in the Family Affordability report by Abby McCloskey, who was tasked with considering, in particular, Hispanic families—a diverse population of 60 million, overly represented in poverty and low-income statistics. Hispanics by and large believe in the American dream of upward social mobility more than most. They also make up a sizable proportion of America’s future: one third of children in the United States are Hispanic.
Hispanic Americans offer a revealing example of the ways early childhood can shape one’s trajectory. In theory, Hispanics are in a good position to achieve upward social mobility. They have stronger stocks of social capital than their white counterparts: they more likely to have someone in the household working, more likely to be part of a faith community, and to have extended family networks—all of which are social resources for the long haul. But many Hispanic communities are losing these resources: they are experiencing declines in church attendance and marriage rates; and rates of children born outside of marriage are steepest among Hispanics. This is a fast-moving picture, but it could be best described as an intergenerational disintegration of social capital.
Why is social capital dwindling so rapidly among Hispanic Americans? One factor that probably drives much of it is that protections for those in low-income, low-skilled work are very slim. This lack of protection places intense strains on families, which means they often don’t have enough time and resources to care for young children.
This lack of protections in the labor market and the strains placed on families extends across racial groups. One in four mothers in the United States returns to work just two weeks after birth. This can create serious challenges for children, according to attachment theory. This theory examines the universal need for children to find secure attachment with their mother, and suggests that this separation between mother and child can have significant consequences down the road.
What, exactly, does attachment theory suggest about early childhood development? Many of its findings look at cognitive development. The brain develops one million synaptic connections a second during the first three years of life. After three years, they pare down to their most efficient use. This brain development occurs in the context of relationship, specifically through interaction with one’s biological mother: her touch, her voice, eye-to-eye contact, and over a continuity of predictable availability and care.
It is during this vital stage that foundational systems are laid down for how a child patterns all future relationships—attachment style—including their relationship to stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced by oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which is produced by regular interaction and contact with the mother. Cortisol levels, measured in saliva, are shown to be higher among children in daycare centers than those cared for by their mother.
Secure attachment built over a prolonged period of time allows the child to begin to move from co-regulation to self-regulation. The ability to self-soothe from early childhood is a critical function in later life: insecure attachment is associated with higher vulnerability to addiction, high-risk behavior relating to sex, relationships, alcohol, and drugs. Research shows that children who spend more than 30 hours per week in non-maternal care were by age 4.5 three times more likely to exhibit poorer outcomes across all social-emotional development indicators—similar to the effect size of poverty on behavioral outcomes. These effects, in follow up and similar studies, were shown to persist into adolescence and young adulthood.
The connection between care received in the younger years and lifelong ability to gain social capital cannot be ignored.
Lack of Support for Mothers
The United States is arguably one of the developed countries least hospitable to achieving secure attachment. The fact of the matter is that the United States is not particularly friendly toward stay-at-home mothers, whose work is valued at $160,000 a year with a workload of 2.5 jobs. Women have been permitted to join the labor market in the United States on the same terms as men: fertility does not impede productivity.
Other countries have done a better job of accepting biological realities, namely childbirth. America is the only rich country that does not offer any national maternity or paid family leave. While the average total paid leave available to mothers in the European Union is 64.6 weeks, and in the OECD 50.8 weeks, the United States offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave nationally—though small firms (fewer than 50 local employees) are exempt from this requirement. Such a stark lack of generosity means the chance for mothers to bond with their children is almost entirely at the mercy of personal wealth (whether financial or of social capital), the caprice of employers, or some local exceptions.
Another part of the challenge in supporting mothers is that American healthcare is suboptimal, to put it mildly. The United States has the second most expensive cost of childbirth in the world, after Japan. Yet among developed countries American women of reproductive age have the highest maternal mortality rates, especially for women of color; are the most likely to have trouble paying medical bills, to skip or delay needed care because of costs; and among the least likely to have a regular doctor.
The need for these policies is becoming increasingly urgent. There may be connections between lack of supports for families and problems we’re seeing with young people today: studies show freshman year students have, over time, reported increasingly feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities as their resilience declines. Rates of self-harm have increased over recent decades as adolescents and young adults look for ways to self-soothe. Meanwhile there was a 63 percent increase of anxiety and depression among 18–30 year-olds between 2005 and 2017.
Protecting Early Childhood
In light of what attachment theory theory teaches us, and the current dearth of basic support for mothers, the United States needs to overhaul its current approach to early childhood development. “The Early Years” report recommends policies to make America a global leader in promoting secure attachment. First, we need to strengthen “the village” that surrounds parents in the raising of the children—not a village of daycare center staff. Rather, spouses, extended family, faith groups, other stay-at-home moms, nonprofits, neighborliness—all these groups need to be revitalized if the role of mothering and fathering is to be supported.
How can we strengthen these support networks? First, we need to seriously reconsider whether pumping tax dollars into building more daycare—or expanding the K-12 system to provide a universal daycare—is addressing the correct challenge.
A better approach would be enacting a federal program of financial support, whether paid family leave or a Super Child Tax Credit, that allows for greater financial stability during the early years, helping families to achieve their personal aspirations—which for many families is having a stay at home mother for the early years.
These supports would allow people to fulfill their aspirations. The majority want to be able to do some form of stay-at-home parenting, and many more might prefer to if they were acquainted with attachment theory. We propose a public health education campaign to help families make choices with more and better information. Teaching attachment theory in prenatal classes, for example, would allow parents to make informed decisions about how to approach the early years. A public health campaign around attachment could also encourage employers and investors to voluntarily implement paid family leave policies as they become aware of its value.
Some worry about career setbacks for parents who temporarily leave the workforce to care for children. But these absences in the long run do not undermine career success: one in three people born today are anticipated to live to 100, which means that careers are likely to last longer, across multiple employers. Hence career breaks for lifelong learning, upskilling, or “sabbaticals” are becoming more common and more necessary, and often contribute to career advancement. Maternity leave, therefore, can and should be part of this new flexibility. Furthermore, in light of this longevity, we can view an absence from the workforce during the first three years of a life—a period briefer than that of a college degree program—as a short term investment with massive yield over decades.
Secure attachment should be available to all children. It is the greatest investment a family can make for their child. Together, we should invest in our youth—especially the early years—to make America the best place to raise a family.
Chris Bullivant is the Director of the Social Capital Campaign. “The Early Years” is available at socialcapitalcampaign.com/youth-investment.