A New Contract with the Middle Class
September 2020

Humans are relational beings. None of us are born alone. Only a few of us will die alone – although one of the tragedies of COVID-19 has been the number of people who have died without loved ones at their bedside. From birth to death, we are shaped and defined by the people around us.

The most important relationships, the strongest ties, typically occur within families. But other relationships, such as close friendships count for a great deal, too. Finally, there are weaker ties to neighbors, coworkers, and the larger community – what some call “social capital.” All of these influence not only the quality of life of individuals, but the flourishing of society as a whole.

The crucial importance of relationships has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing has been a sharp reminder of the value of personal interactions. At the same time, the necessary public health measures have required us to take responsibility not only for our own health, but for the health of others.

But COVID-19 aside, there are some troubling longer-term trends on the relationship front. Family instability is rising, and social trust is declining. Both require action.

Better relationships = better lives

The value of relationships may seem obvious. But it is important to be clear why they matter so much in order to create the right conditions for them to flourish. Strong family relationships provide a foundation for individual development, especially for children. This is why parenting is so important. But even as adults we continue to learn from one another. Relationships also provide support of all kinds – emotional, practical, and financial. Without this social support, few of us can thrive. That’s why social isolation kills – as much as smoking, obesity, or high blood pressure – and why strong families and good friends are so precious to us. Last but not least, relationships with a broader group of people, in our community or even our nation, cultivate a sense of belonging. Relationships across lines of difference – for example of race, class or religion – promote and sustain pluralism.

It is important here not to succumb to nostalgia. There is a tendency towards “bring backery” among some social commentators, based on a faulty presumption of a previous golden age. Families may once have been larger and more stable, but domestic violence, child abuse, gender inequality, and the stigma attached to the unmarried and to same-sex couples were far greater. Divorce as an exit from bad marriages, for example, has been a step forward, leading to fewer suicides among women and less domestic abuse. Perhaps neighborhood-centered communities were once more cohesive, but those neighborhoods were even more segregated along racial lines than they are today.

The state of our relationships

The relational health of the American middle class is not as good as it ought to be, given our resources as a nation. Family life is under more stress, as we have described in the previous two chapters. After trending downwards for the last few decades, marriage rates in the middle class have stabilized, although at a lower level than for the affluent. More children are being born outside marriagemostly to cohabiting couples, rather than to single parents. Parents-to-be are now three times more likely to cohabit after getting pregnant for the first time than to get married, entering what some scholars call “shot-gun cohabitations.” These trends, often associated with poor families, can be seen in the middle class too (Figure 7).

Healthy, stable relationships are good for adults – but are especially good for children. Investment of time and energy by parents strongly impacts child well-being and development. Family stability – with few or no changes in parents’ residential and romantic partnerships – is associated with better educational and social outcomes for children – especially boys. A stable family environment for raising children, typically with two committed parents, is an ideal shared by most Americans.  

A stable family life is much easier to create when parents have adequate economic resources, job security, and enough time (and control over their time) to spend on their children and partners. It’s also critical that they are able to choose when and with whom to have children. Parents who intended to have a child together, at the time they wanted, and who have attained some measure of economic security, are much more likely to stay together. Currently, one-in-three births in the U.S. are unintended; among unmarried women under the age of 30, most births – 60 percent – are unintended. Young adults who “drift” into parenthood, rather than planning their families are much more likely to experience significant instability in their relationships.

We’re made of love, we accept love, we give love, we want love.

Mother, Wichita, KS

The goal for public policy, then, should be to help people construct the foundations upon which a stable family life can be built. That means wider opportunities to acquire skills and education, greater economic security and higher incomes (see Chapter 1), a reduction in the time pressures on parents (see Chapter 2), and broader access to effective reproductive health care (which we turn to below).

What about friendship? We all know how important friends can be, often acting as part of a “chosen family.” Friends provide support, advice, and a listening ear; they are the people we trust and confide in, for whom we have affection, and from whom that trust and affection is reciprocated. Although there have been media reports of rising rates of loneliness or social isolation, those reports have mostly been debunked. Social isolation remains relatively rare, affecting fewer than one in twenty American adults. But isolation is more common among older adults, men, and people living in poorer neighborhoods with little social infrastructure. It seems to be less common among those with dogs (cats, however, appear to make no difference!). New data suggests that social distancing efforts related to COVID-19 have led to a rise in feelings of loneliness.  

Another frequent concern is the increased use of social media, especially among the young. The fear is that this replaces more meaningful, in-person ties; people may have hundreds if not thousands of “friends” on Facebook but may still feel isolated or lonely. However, the jury is out on the longer-term effects of social media on social networks. Much depends on how, and how much, it is used. We are, however, concerned with the way social media is contributing to polarization and disrespect, and we turn to that in Chapter 5.

I think friends or relationships are one of the most crucial parts in living.

Divorced Father, Las Vegas, NV

More than one in four households now contain just one person. Solo living has risen dramatically as the population has aged, marriage has declined, and affluence has enabled people to buy more privacy or autonomy.  Living alone does not necessarily signal a lack of relationships, however, especially close friends. As Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, puts it: “journalists, scholars, and health care providers often conflate living alone, feeling lonely, and being isolated.” People report that their friends and neighbors are available to help them in times of need. Overall, the news here is mixed. Friendships, so critical to well-being, show no signs of being on the wane overall – but more people appear to be at risk of loneliness, especially as they age

When it comes to broader community relationships, however, the picture is bleaker. There has been a corrosive decline in social trust, and increased tribalism of various kinds. Our social capital has been depleted.

Social capital comprises relationships not with intimate others, but with a larger group. Those relationships can have intrinsic value, creating a sense of belonging or of being connected to others. But they can also have value for the larger society by creating the kind of trust and reciprocal norms that, for example, lead people to look after each other’s children, wait patiently in line to buy a ticket, help someone find a job, or deal with an emergency such as COVID-19. They make guidelines about wearing face masks effective even when no one is jailed for failure to comply. For these kinds of reasons, empirical studies suggest that these group ties and the social trust they engender can lead to higher growth rates, better health outcomes, and more stable democracies.

The bad news is that social capital appears to have declined in America. The broadest and most widely used measure of trust in other people – asking “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” –  has dropped markedly in the U.S. since the early 1970s (Figure 8).

This erosion of trust in others has been accompanied by declines in participation in a range of organizations, from churches to unions, which has been only partially offset by rising interest in more personally-oriented activities such as professional associations and hobbies.

The broad question on trust refers to “most people,” intentionally a broad group. A higher proportion of Americans – about half – say they trust most or all of their neighbors. There is an important distinction here between what Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam labels “bonding” social capital (i.e. ties to people who are like you in some important way) and “bridging” social capital (i.e. ties to people who are unlike you in some important way). High levels of bonding within homogenous groups may create more division in broader society.

Under certain conditions, greater diversity can result in people separating from each other, rather than moving closer together – in tribalism, rather than pluralism. As Putnam puts it, “diversity, at least in the short-run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.” The permanent challenge of diverse societies is then to facilitate more integration – more “bridging” – to counteract the risks of tribalism. Two bright spots here are the growing acceptance of diversity and the increase in mixed-race marriages.

The key to a better future is, as Putnam argues, the redefinition of social identities: “identity itself is socially constructed and can be socially de-constructed and re-constructed.” This can be facilitated by building empathy and respect between groups, such as between those who are born in the U.S. and immigrants, or different racial groups – but also by making other identities more salient (see Chapter 5 on this, too).

In free societies, governments do not create relationships, a fact for which we should all be thankful. We each choose the social webs in which we lead our lives. But policy can act to create the conditions within which relationships can form and grow. We propose two main ways to promote good relationships of very different kinds: better family planning, and universal national service.

Family planning = family stability

As we argued above, family stability matters – especially when it comes to raising children. If the old norm was children within marriage, the new norm ought to be children brought into the world intentionally. The good news is that supporting parents to plan their families is easier today than at any time in history thanks to the availability of safe, long-acting forms of contraception, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs). Since they are much more effective than other forms of contraception (Figure 9), their use dramatically reduces unplanned pregnancies as well as abortions.

States that have trained providers in the use of IUDs or other long-acting contraceptive methods — or made them available for free with good patient-oriented counselling — have experienced marked declines in unplanned pregnancies and abortions.

A $1 billion investment in the most effective long-acting forms of contraception would produce an estimated $3.2 billion to $6.4 billion in increased earnings for children whose birth was timed to align with their own parents’ preferences. The lives of families and children could be greatly improved if more women were aware of their family planning options, were not deterred by the higher cost of the most effective forms, and had access to providers trained in the newer, more effective methods. Of course, ensuring access to health care providers in general is an important goal (see next Chapter 4), but specific proposals for increasing access to reproductive care relate to:    

  • Awareness. A new question should appear on medical intake forms, asking women of childbearing age if they wish to get pregnant or not. This “one key question” should catalyze a discussion of (or referral to) contraceptive services if a woman does not want to get pregnant, or to pre-pregnancy health advice if she does. Other ways to improve awareness include social marketing campaigns and better sex education in schools.  
  • Cost.  Contraception should be readily available at no cost to the user, as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act. The initial cost of the most effective forms of contraception, such as the IUD, is high – but much lower than the costs of an unplanned birth. 
  • Provider training.  Medical schools and non-profits such as Upstream, should be funded to train health providers, especially those in public health clinics. This additional training has been shown, for example in Delaware, to increase the use of effective forms of contraception, and reduce unplanned pregnancies and abortions dramatically.

Universal national service

How do we create more social capital, restore trust in others, broaden social identities, and build bridges between different groups? There are a number of ideas worth pursuing here, including universal national service, enhanced tax incentives for charitable giving to support voluntary associations, and encouraging local leadership and initiative through more revenue sharing with states and cities.

Of these three, we set most store by universal national service. Asking all young people to provide a year or two of service to their country – either military or civilian – would provide them with valuable experience, and help communities deal with challenges such as natural disasters, tutoring kids, or cleaning up the environment. It would also expose people from different backgrounds to one another, reducing tribalism and social divides across race, class, and geography. The integrative power of service is hard to overstate. When we form closer relationships with people who are different from us, our attitudes typically alter for the better.

This is why it is so important that service volunteers are representative of the nation as a whole. Contrary to the common saying, familiarity does not breed contempt; it builds respect. Serving in the military, belonging to a megachurch, or marrying into a different group have all served to break down barriers. The average American soldier, for example, has closer inter-racial friendships than the average American civilian of the same age and social class. Service engenders pluralism.

We want a society where the question “Where did you do your service?” is as commonplace as “Where did you go to school?” –  a society where service is the cultural norm. As things stand, there are three times as many young Americans wanting to engage in civilian service as there are places available through existing programs. As we write, a renewed legislative effort is underway to expand service opportunities. We strongly support widening opportunities to serve, with the goal of making one or two years of service the expected norm for every American. Specifically, we propose:

  • Creating at least 1.65 million new one-year civilian service opportunities at a cost of around $40 billion and expanding further over time.
  • Building on the success of AmeriCorps and similar programs, ensuring that national service is available through a variety of suitably accredited schemes.
  • Supporting civilian roles more generously than currently, for example through a higher stipend, in order to widen access. Service opportunities must be made more inclusive before they are expanded.
  • Instituting Scholarships for Service: undertaking service will qualify volunteers for free public college (see Chapter 1). One year of service would mean two years of tuition-free education.
  • Expanding service beyond young people: it should be available to, for example, older Americans, former prisoners, displaced workers, and veterans, with training provided to the volunteers, similar to the National Guard.
  • Combining national service with an “American Exchange” program, with families from across the country opening their homes to service volunteers. This would reduce costs and build still more bridging social capital.

A relational Republic

A good life is made through the relationships that we experience directly, as well as through our relationships to our community as a whole. Public policy necessarily has a limited role to play here. But it can surely help to create the conditions – such as family stability, stronger civic institutions and opportunities to serve alongside each other that can enable stronger and more diverse relationships to flourish.

Special thanks to Chris Pulliam and Ember Smith for their research support.

America can only be as strong as the American middle class. We believe that the new contract we have described here, based on the core principles of partnership, prevention, and pluralism, holds out the promise of a better future for the middle class — and therefore for the nation. Let us know what you think.


About the Authors

Richard V. Reeves

Richard V. Reeves

John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead Chair, Senior Fellow – Economic Studies, Director – Future of the Middle Class Initiative, Director – Center on Children and Families
Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at Brookings and the Director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative. His research focuses on the middle class, inequality, and social mobility.
Isabel V. Sawhill

Isabel V. Sawhill

Senior Fellow – Economic Studies, Center on Children and Families, Future of the Middle Class Initiative
Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow at Brookings, working in the Future of the Middle Class Initiative. Her research includes economic growth, poverty, social mobility, and inequality.