A Systems Approach to Social Disintegration

Seth D. Kaplan

Fall 2017

Social disintegration — especially in working-class neighborhoods hit hard by the decline of the American industrial base — is a misunderstood, even hidden facet of American life. The social fabric in the places most vulnerable to globalization has been stretched, torn, and frayed. Work rates are declining, health conditions are worsening, and family bonds are strained. Meanwhile, stress, drug addiction, and anomie have proliferated. Frustration with all of this bubbled over in the recent presidential election and is evident throughout our politics.

Despite a wide variety of policy interventions over the last half-century, social disintegration has accelerated, gradually encompassing a larger share of the population. Government policies may have helped some join the middle class, but they have been ineffective at ameliorating the decay of working-class communities and the social institutions they depend upon, because these policies ignore the role that social institutions play in nurturing robust families, communities, and norms. Marriage, for instance, is one of the best predictors of male behavior, but it has received much less attention from policymakers than poverty; many policies aimed at tackling the latter may actually reduce the chance of the former.

These policies are rooted in an individualistic view of society, one that emphasizes maximizing one's human and financial capital over building social capital — that is, the ability to develop and maintain strong family and community institutions. President Trump's pledges to create jobs, cut taxes, and invest in infrastructure, for instance, reveal a simplistic view of Americans as autonomous economic units that will flourish if given the right inputs. There are both external (economic) and internal (social) dynamics contributing to the current crisis, but policymakers are fixated on the former, offering welfare and employment solutions even though those can only carry the working class so far.

Social conservatives have offered a much-needed appeal to intermediate institutions, but they have proven better at identifying the key problems than prescribing solutions. Yuval Levin argues in The Fractured Republic that the prevailing "view of society as consisting only of individuals and a state" must be tempered by subsidiarity — "putting power, authority, and significance as close to the level of the interpersonal community as reasonably possible." But even if greater decentralization is a prerequisite for change, it is not a recipe for it. The result could just as easily lead to greater social breakdown if devastated communities do not have any mechanisms to repair the institutions they have lost. Neither local governments nor social institutions are likely to be up to the challenge given their current state. In a society increasingly divided by class, education, and social network, repair and revitalization will be especially difficult, and a variety of actors from both inside and outside these communities will be needed.

Systems thinking can help fill this void. By examining and mapping all elements of a social system, including interactions between the various components, systems thinking can be used to identify major structural, economic, social, and institutional deficits and the factors behind systemic failures. Such factors include contradictory goals, poor incentives, inadequate feedback, poor cooperation, poor trust, dysfunctional norms, flawed patterns of behavior, weak system-wide understanding, and a focus on subordinate (rather than super-ordinate) goals. All of these can undermine communities, families, and individuals — and play an essential role in poverty, the lack of social mobility, and expanding inequities. The work of mapping them out can then inform holistic approaches that carefully select entry points and bring in a wide range of actors — including federal, state, and local governments; philanthropies; religious institutions; non-governmental organizations; the private sector; and local leaders. Only with such a broadly conceived, coordinated approach can the challenges of social disintegration be met.

Many Americans are skeptical of "technocratic elites" and bureaucratic solutions. Others are indignant that questions of morality and social norms should be part of the conversations about inequality, drug use, and civic engagement. But systems thinking should appeal to both. Its comprehensive nature should also appeal to people on both sides of the political spectrum and provide a framework for political compromise — giving each side something it desires. If people are willing to collaborate, systems thinking can imbue an appreciation for the multifaceted nature of social ecosystems. Only with this kind of holistic approach can we make real, lasting progress in the fight against social disintegration.


Family breakdown and social disintegration — especially among the poor and working classes — are crippling increasingly large swathes of the American population. But in the decades since the famous 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan report, The Negro Family, brought the problems to light, political and policymaking interest in finding a solution has ebbed and flowed. Interest is high again now, as evidenced by a number of books published in recent years. Prominent scholars from both the right and left, such as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam, have examined the stark changes that have engulfed working-class communities and the precipitous decline in social cohesion — that is, the relationships and norms that provide vitality and resilience to a community.

These changes include measurable declines in workforce participation, family life, and civic engagement. For instance, as Nicholas Eberstadt documents in Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis, the proportion of males in their prime working years (ages 25 to 54) who are currently employed is lower now than in 1940, at the end of the Great Depression — despite today's low unemployment rate. Many of those without jobs have simply chosen not to work, instead adopting what Eberstadt calls an "alternative lifestyle to the age-old male quest for a paying job," a trend that reflects a "normative sea change." An increasing share of the population, especially young adults, are likely to say that "society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children," according to the Pew Research Center.

In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray notes the declining percentage of children living with both biological parents, remarking that such family instability "calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation." A well-documented decline in participation in civic organizations means fewer Americans regularly attend religious services, join labor unions, or partake in community organizations than in decades past. People are becoming less religious by any measure, with the number of completely unaffiliated Americans rising sharply.

All of these trends are much more dramatic in working-class and poor communities than in middle- and upper-class communities. The educated class remains enmeshed in social norms and institutions that create a virtuous cycle. The less educated increasingly live physically apart from their more-educated compatriots; they are often trapped in communities and social networks that not only limit their ability to escape, but also reinforce these deleterious dynamics.

Economic dislocation (such as factory closures) can explain some, but certainly not all, of these problems. Economic churn in one form or another has long been a part of American life. And interestingly, when large numbers of factories closed their doors, draining areas in the Rust Belt and elsewhere of economic opportunity, there were working-class communities that resisted decay. Some, with moral values and social networks that emphasized hard work, self-reliance, and family, struggled but manage to keep their bonds intact. Wherever possible, families leveraged their limited resources and moved or hunkered down to deal with the challenges. Elsewhere, however, things were much worse. As J. D. Vance points out in Hillbilly Elegy, if community values and social ties emphasized consumerism, distrust, indolence, and irresponsibility, people were much harder hit by the shock waves and increasingly isolated in like-minded neighborhoods. The latter narrative is common today, and it requires a holistic response.


Burkean conservatives, deeply informed by Scottish philosophers such as Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, believe that societies only develop a complex web of institutions — including laws, habits, manners, morals, customs, and historically evolved organizations — from, in the words of Friedrich Hayek, a prolonged "process of cumulative growth." In this understanding, as Linda Raeder explains, social institutions are developed through "a complex historical process characterized by trial-and-error experimentation." This demands, according to Burke, shrewd judgment, prudence, and (in the words of Raeder) "respect for the given and the grown." Therefore, as she explains, "the process of cultural advance is utterly dependent upon the absorption and transmission of the cultural inheritance over time." When societies fail to transfer their cultural inheritance, the web of institutions — the social system — that supports their level of development breaks down. Decay is self-reinforcing, as weakened institutions (like the family) lose the mechanisms and stability required to transfer that inheritance (like mores and norms) effectively.

Although few sociologists would call themselves conservatives, many share this deep understanding of society's complexity and dynamism. Indeed, the potential in systems thinking can be appreciated by academics and practitioners from varied political and ideological persuasions. Émile Durkheim describes in The Division of Labor in Society how "[t]he totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or common consciousness." Sociologists such as Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann focus on systems theory. Parsons argues that "[a]s an organization of human interests, activities and commitments, [the social system] must be viewed as a system and in functional perspective." As such, it is "both structure and process."

Each person is embedded in a larger social system, and each part of the system works in conjunction with the others; change at one level brings change elsewhere. Individuals both influence and are influenced by the networks they belong to. Changes in social relationships, norms, and the social context produce changes in behavior. The ecosystem shapes attitudes and choices. Kenneth McLeroy and others researching community-based approaches suggest that an individual's behavior occurs

within a broad social context, including the developmental history of the individual, psychological characteristics (norms, values, attitudes), interpersonal relationships (family, social networks), neighborhood, organizations, community, public policy, the physical environment, and culture.

A wide variety of elements that are often considered separate from society are actually partially a product of it. For example, even though the strength or weakness of an economy is typically assumed to be the result of technocratic factors such as interest rates, the regulatory environment, education levels, infrastructure, and so on, social context has a rarely acknowledged yet outsized influence. The capacity of an individual to take risks, save money, gain access to capital, network in search of opportunity, relocate, cooperate toward common goals, build professional associations, and so on — all important determinants of economic success — is very much dependent on the nature of the social system to which he belongs.

Similarly, even though security is formally the responsibility of government, the safety of streets in many places depends far more on the inhabitants and their social relationships and norms than on the police. Economic security — a central concern in America today — depends far more on family and communal ties than on the state. The quality and quantity of civic institutions can change dramatically depending on the social context. Even the effectiveness of public institutions can depend on how a society functions, partly explaining the great variation in state effectiveness and corruption across the country — and why social polarization has reduced the effectiveness of Congress and the federal government.

Systems thinking provides a useful lens for understanding the broader dynamics behind these issues and why many policies have failed to meet expectations. It tries to balance holistic and reductionist thinking. By taking into account both the overall system and its components, it aims to improve outcomes and reduce unintended consequences from interventions. It promotes broader perspectives on problems in order to reduce the dangers produced by the silo effect.

Systems thinking is thus an ideal way to approach social disintegration. There is no commonly used definition for social disintegration, but it is generally assumed to encompass some sort of breakdown of the social order and social-support systems that maintain a community's adaptive, supportive, and developmental capacities. Community here could mean everything from a relatively compact neighborhood to a rural area to a diverse suburb that provides formal and informal resources and avenues of meaning for members on a day-to-day basis. It could also mean a group of people who are closely tied to one another but do not necessarily live in the same geographical location (for example, close-knit religious groups that are spread out in different places). In densely populated areas, multiple communities can coexist in the same neighborhood, though interacting mainly with their own members.

Many sociologists have discussed social disintegration (what might be considered a form of systems breakdown) in one form or another. Durkheim, for instance, in his book on suicide, warned about the development of highly anomic societies characterized by weak social bonds and limited attachment to family, religion, community, and other such groups. Rapid social change and the division of labor coming from modernization would weaken identification with the wider community and its constraints on behavior. The resulting "disintegration," he warned, would mean more egocentric behavior and norm violation, and greater de-legitimation and distrust of public authority.


Systems thinking is increasingly used in business, the medical field, policing, and economic development, among other industries. Companies, for instance, depend on systems that include suppliers, inputs, product- or service-development processes, outputs, employees, customers, shareholders, the media, sociopolitical context, and other external influences that work together to make an organization "healthy" or "unhealthy." They have to regularly assess all parts of the system, and identify ways to improve it, or they will be vulnerable at their weakest links and exposed to cascading effects of unforeseen stresses and shocks.

As David Peter Stroh notes in his book on systems thinking and social change, seeing a problem through a systemic lens, as opposed to a conventional one, forces a completely different approach to effecting change. Conventional thinking can work for straightforward problems such as healing a wound, but it is not suitable for social problems with all their interlocking features. For example, ending homelessness cannot be accomplished just by providing shelter. It requires a set of long-term initiatives encompassing changes to housing policy, expansion of support services, strengthening family structures and community cohesion, enhancing work opportunities, and so on. The table below, which comes from Stroh's book, summarizes the differences between conventional and systems thinking.

This kind of approach is well understood as a best practice for corporations and other institutions. Yet a systems approach to public policy aimed at social concerns hasn't been tried, despite the obvious parallels. While there isn't one clear explanation for this, factors may include a lack of awareness of the benefits, a bias toward technocratic and state-centric answers, a short time horizon, ideologies that constrain thinking, and a lack of resources to invest in initiatives of this type, all of which combine to hold back public officials. Yet, all policy goals depend on the broader ecosystem for success. Policymakers encounter significant problems when employing technocratic approaches that do not take into account the broader context, including the varied factors that constrain individual choices.

In a systems-thinking framework, policy should reflect a more modest role for government coupled with a more robust role for social institutions. But both public and private institutions will have to reckon with rampant individualism as they seek to strengthen the social system. The government, once seen as a crucial provider of law and order, and social institutions, once seen as essential to maintaining the social fabric, have been redefined to serve the needs of the individual. As political scientist Daniel Elazar has observed, whereas in the colonial period it was understood that "the fabric of society had to be kept intact, even at the expense of individual liberties and rights," and from 1789 to the 1940s "the maintenance of the social fabric was given equal billing with individual rights," starting in the late 1940s or so, "maintaining the social fabric became distinctly secondary if not incidental in the face of individual rights challenges." While modern constitutional thought sought to secure rights through strengthening institutions and balancing forces within society, postmodern constitutional thought looks to the "guaranteeing of rights through judicial fiat, almost without regard to the other institutional arrangements and relationships."

Democrats and Republicans have promoted few policies that address the societal roots of reduced social mobility, rising social dysfunction, and systemic poverty, generally favoring economic answers — albeit of very different flavors. Both parties frame a variety of socioeconomic and sociocultural problems in a way that inevitably leads to a focus on the role of money (individual employment) and government (individual welfare). Neither provides a plan to strengthen the social system. As Mary Ann Glendon writes in Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, "Lacking an adequate linguistic or conceptual apparatus to deal with the intermediate institutions that stand between the individual and the state," the United States (and other Western countries) regularly overlook the social ecosystem within which individuals (and state institutions) develop.

As Durkheim scholar Stjepan Mestrovic argues, the combination of the growing bureaucratization of society and the weakening of traditional social groups can so erode the emotional bonds between individuals and their communities that the former have difficulty internalizing the moral code of the latter. Impersonal organizations — like government — are simply unable to impart the needed ethic. And without mores, there are few internal constraints to hold back egoistic, self-aggrandizing behavior. Weak social cohesion means many individuals are not integrated into the moral universe of the society; this produces high levels of stress, discontent, deviance, disorder, mistreatment, and social disintegration.


Despite our current state of social decay, a systems approach could help rebuild habits, manners, and morals that have fallen into disrepair. Because it takes a comprehensive view of social problems, such an approach would entail a multi-step process.

First, it would bring together a wide range of concerned actors from government, philanthropies, religious institutions, NGOs, the private sector, and local communities to build a common picture of the current reality. Second, these stakeholders would be given an opportunity to lay out their competing explanations for why the complex problems persist and even grow despite decades of attempts to improve conditions. Third, these different perspectives would be integrated into a much more comprehensive picture of the whole system, including underlying drivers of the problems. Fourth, with this comprehensive picture, stakeholders would see how various well-intended efforts to solve the problems in the past often made things worse. Finally, they could use this knowledge to forge a new vision of how the future might unfold through a wide range of complementary initiatives that can combine to produce sustainable, system-wide change.

This five-step process should produce a map of the key components of the social system and how they interact and influence communities and the individuals in them. This map would allow stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan that takes into account all the major factors involved. The goal is to develop a coherent theory of community change rooted in a realistic assessment of structural conditions (including economic conditions, transportation systems, societal influences, social structures, education levels, communal financial resources, and the like), institutions (relationships, norms, networks, laws, and incentives), and actors in a way that is rarely, if ever, done today. Although change is unlikely to simply happen from the bottom up, a purely top-down approach is not likely to work either. Instead, something catalytic that strengthens community structures, institutions, and actors is needed.

The process is easier to understand in context. For example, McLeroy and his colleagues explain in the American Journal of Public Health how a systems approach to health promotion carefully assesses "community structures and processes" in order to "identify and work with...naturally occurring units of solution," including "families, informal social networks, neighborhoods, schools, the workplace, businesses, voluntary agencies, and political structures." The aim is to "strengthen these units of solution to better meet the needs of community members." This requires strengthening "neighborhood organizations and network linkages, including informal social networks, ties between individuals and the organizations that serve them, and connections among community organizations to strengthen their ability to collaborate."

A systems approach to strengthening the entrepreneurial environment of an urban area focuses on issues such as investor networks, research institutions, education levels, court systems, incumbent companies, government institutions, social networks, social norms, and culture (including risk taking, accepting newcomers, and the like). It aims to improve how all the different components of the broad ecosystem function and interact in order to develop enough cooperation to nurture new businesses, jobs, and wealth creation. Many of the individual components need to be developed simultaneously to be effective because of the roles they play in the development of the other parts. Their interaction creates a network effect on the environment; the more effective each piece, the better each of the others generally will work.

Systems thinking can be applied to social systems in a similar fashion. It would shift the focus of problem-solving from the individual to the community level, yielding an emphasis on strengthening families, norms, culture, community organizations, local government, social networks, inter-organizational collaboration, mechanisms for dialogue and conflict management, leadership, and relationships of trust and reciprocity, in addition to concerns about the economy and incomes. The goal would be to ensure that each of these components counteracted rather than encouraged social decay and that they worked increasingly as a unit, sending a coherent message and providing coherent support. Only by strengthening household and community capacity can social systems have the resilience to overcome the various challenges they face.

Such an approach would recognize that social institutions and norms are essential to bettering the human condition — much as a rights-based system improves the human condition, but in a very different way. Whereas rights reduce restraints and regulations to enhance individual opportunity, institutions and norms impose rules and obligations to meet social needs and promote public goods. While both are essential components of any good society, they are qualitatively different, and one cannot work without the other.

While national and local governments certainly have roles to play in addressing social breakdown — by, for example, making changes in the tax code, investing in infrastructure, and bringing together various actors to address common problems — they are limited in their ability to address many pressing concerns, like broken families, bad schools, and the proliferation of drugs. As Durkheim notes, the state alone is "too remote from individuals"; it is insufficient for maintaining the social fabric. And, as Glendon explains, although the legal and political vocabularies of the United States can easily handle issues related to rights, markets, and the state, they do not provide the means to empower the smaller groups and systems that inculcate the values and practices that shape how our society and country as a whole evolve and, ultimately, how effectively its democracy and government will work.


Although any attempt to strengthen social institutions is fraught with difficulty, and a complete discussion is outside the scope of this essay, there are a number of avenues that can be explored using a systems-thinking framework. Ideally, some combination of political, religious, business, and civic leadership is required to tackle the multifaceted nature of the problem. Each has a role to play: Politicians need to formulate fresh policies; religious leaders need to espouse strong norms; business leaders need to make targeted investments; and civic leaders, including NGOs and philanthropists, need to foster greater social solidarity and new avenues for people across class divides to join up in common social networks. This approach would give a strong role to three institutions in particular: religion, family, and local leadership. Economic issues would still matter, but arguably not as much as these.

The goal is to create a positive "tipping point" that transforms the vicious cycles that plague a community into virtuous cycles that empower it, enabling the entire community to overcome, by itself, the many social, educational, and normative problems that hold it back. The three institutions at the center of this approach have had some success in their past efforts. Though such successes are not easy to replicate (among other things, they are labor intensive and costly), these experiences can help point the way forward.

Religion is key to a systems-thinking approach; it is hard to imagine the kind of systemic change in norms and relationships necessary without a strong role for religion, given its advantages in addressing these issues. Many studies have shown the beneficial impact of actively belonging to a religious community. Robert Putnam and David Campbell, for instance, showed in American Grace that those who frequently attend church or some other place of worship have much higher rankings in a whole slew of civic-engagement indicators, such as membership in community organizations, neighborhood and civic groups, and professional associations.

Other studies show that regular attendance at religious services is linked to strong marriages; stable family life; well-behaved children; reductions in the incidences of domestic abuse, crime, and addiction; higher incomes; and increases in physical health, mental health, education levels, and longevity. And, as Patrick Fagan notes, "[T]hese effects are intergenerational, as grandparents and parents pass on the benefits to the next generations." Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks offers this tidy summary of the effect of religiosity in a review of American Grace: "Religion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and toward the common good."

Adherence to traditional religious beliefs is not enough. Faithful practice — as reflected in regular attendance (at least several times a month) at services — is essential to gaining the benefits, such as greater marriage stability. Single parenthood, for instance, is high in places such as Arkansas where there are many nominal Christians (in this case Baptists), but extremely low in places such as Utah where there are many active ones (in this case Mormons). In the former case, religion does not produce constructive social institutions, whereas in the latter it produces them in droves.

Similarly, it is hard to imagine the kind of systemic change in norms and relationships necessary without a revival of familism among the working class. Many, though certainly not all, of the economic and social problems working-class communities face would be ameliorated if strong norms about family (and community) predominated. People would be more focused on work, children, and civic engagement than they are now, with many second- and third-order benefits emerging from these commitments. A far greater proportion of children, for instance, would be born into intact families, with all the developmental and social benefits that these bring. Men in particular would gain from greater focus on family, with a substantially higher percentage actively working or looking for work.

The development of "atomistic family" norms and "free individualism," the dominant ethos today, poses stark, mostly unrecognized, dangers to society, as sociologist Carle Zimmerman argued 70 years ago. While social and economic forces explain some of the shift, cultural change has played a major role. People are more individualistic, more dependent on the state, and more influenced by ideology that de-emphasizes or even attacks familism. Changes in sexual mores, expectations related to marriage, women's work prospects, and the instability of families have also contributed, as W. Bradford Wilcox and others have noted. Instead of seeing marriage as a "cornerstone" for adulthood, Andrew Cherlin writes, many younger Americans now see it as the "capstone" that consecrates the achievement of a secure, middle-class lifestyle, something that many see as out of reach.

In order to counter such trends, the Philanthropy Roundtable has recently launched a partnership to "strengthen families, and the religious participation that bolsters family life" in Phoenix, Jacksonville, and Dayton. It aims to spend as much as $50 million to "boost local nonprofits capable of making an impact." The initiative will bring various groups together in the target locales and use sophisticated "analytics, communications, and opinion- and behavior-altering tools" to advance its agenda. The ultimate aim is to build on successful efforts in ways that can scale up over time.

Finally, communities need coordinated leadership. Only a concerted, simultaneous effort by a coalition of political, religious, business, and civic leaders can hope to reverse the downward momentum that affects many communities. Values such as familism, communal trust, and personal industry can be revived only if a large number of leaders and organizations that do not typically cooperate work together.

Changes in attitudes toward smoking show what is possible — and how it could be done. It involved a series of systemic interventions — including education, advertising, the media, taxes, legal changes, and lawsuits — that, incrementally and cumulatively, dramatically changed behavior. But it took decades and succeeded only because the effort was sustained and broad, including cooperation from Washington and even Hollywood.

Ideally, local and state governments would spearhead efforts to build coalitions for change. They are not, however, always up to the challenge. At the very least, local and state governments should widen avenues to bring diverse actors together. They must play an important role because only government can fix the schools, build the infrastructure, develop the transportation links, and encourage the investment that working-class neighborhoods desperately need and without which other initiatives are likely to fall short.

In many cases, different arms of the government will have to work together while complementing or supporting privately led initiatives. Breaking down barriers to cooperation where they exist — such as with religious institutions, which were once more active partners in collaborative efforts but have been progressively pushed out of the public square — is essential. Even though improved social services and government investment are essential, they will never have the kind of impact that they could achieve if combined with the work of organizations that strengthen norms.

Non-governmental institutions — such as nonprofits, religious organizations, and philanthropies — may have to play the leading role in some places. As discussed above, this will require developing systemic plans that take into account the broad range of factors that hold people back instead of focusing on one aspect of the problem. The Harlem Children's Zone, for instance, "works to reweave the social fabric of Harlem" by providing a uniquely comprehensive set of programs that target not only children but also families and culture. The Zone's strategy thus focuses on both academic and character development, "cultivat[ing] key traits such as integrity, perseverance, empathy, confidence, and determination" — going much further than any program narrowly focused on education outcomes could. This environment recognizes that education should be based on formation, not just a data set reflecting a student's achievement.

Community Renewal International has worked to help reverse the social breakdown in Shreveport, Louisiana, and elsewhere by building "Friendship Houses" in high-crime neighborhoods. These seek to systematically initiate, develop, and sustain "safe and caring communities" by transforming the nature of relationships across neighborhoods. Their efforts have produced major drops in crime, gang membership, and drug use. In neighborhoods where violence and fear once reigned, there is now safety and trust. Mentoring through the Friendship Houses aims to increase confidence, ambition, and educational success while reducing risky behavior.

Another initiative, the Thriving Cities project — run by the University of Virginia — is building a "human ecology" framework to map out the "complex, asymmetric, and dynamic social systems that both empower and constrain the ways of life and life chances of their residents." It aims to think deeply about the "shape, character, and normative purposes" of communities by making use of culture and history in ways currently not done. This could lead to a much more holistic understanding of social breakdown and bring a variety of actors together to collaborate in addressing the issues identified.

Local organizations — or perhaps local chapters of organizations based elsewhere — that can create models of behavior and nurture the positive development of people are also essential. The YMCA, for instance, offers access and programming for those from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, promoting health, recreation, and youth development. Guild-like associations (including fraternal organizations such as Lions and Rotary Clubs) and other local institutions (including unions) that help connect individuals to the community are weaker than they were just a few decades ago. Yet they offer unique platforms to build community and to foster the empathy and commitment necessary for strong societies. Where capacity is lacking at the local level, change may have to be spurred by outsiders, pilot projects, or national funding.

Finally, political, economic, and cultural leaders — in essence, America's elites — need to set a much better example than they do now. While it seems unlikely given today's climate, only an ideological shift will give the right issues attention. Changing norms and strengthening linkages across classes will be notably difficult unless elites change. They will have to respect the working class more — treating those in blue-collar jobs with dignity, ending our explicit and implicit biases against those with different education and work paths, and respecting more traditional belief systems. This means developing or finding more opportunities to study together, work together, pray together, play together, or just fraternize together, and expanding social networks in order to build solidarity and trust, strengthen norms, and provide opportunities for those in the working class. Only by moving into working-class neighborhoods, developing mechanisms to link up with working-class groups, putting a long-term commitment to workers above a short-term commitment to profits, and emphasizing through word and action the importance of family and community is change likely to come.

While systems thinking is a highly rational mapping tool for improving public action on the myriad issues discussed here, its potential will be realized only if actors at every level collaborate and act in concert, and with empathy. America's social fabric relies on our affiliations and commitments to one another — commitments fostered by "habits of the heart," through emotional and spiritual connections.

Seth D. Kaplan is a lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. 


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