The Uneven Distribution of Social Capital in the U.S.

by Reihan Salam

Tino Sanandaji updated his recent post on Swedish family structure to include the following observation:

We can shed some light on this matter through my usual method of using Americans who report Swedish ancestry as a control group. Using the American Community Survey 2006-2010, I estimate the percentage of unmarried households among households with children. 

Among Americans with Swedish ancestry born in the United States, the share is 18.1 percent. This is similar to the Swedish numbers, below the U.S national average and below the average for non-Hispanic whites. Let me emphasize that these are Americans with Swedish ancestry born in the United States. They hence live under the American system and are uninfluenced by the Swedish welfare state. The fact that Swedish-Americans have similar outcomes to families in Sweden indicates that culture and social capital are more important explanations for Swedishfamily stability than economic policy.

This method isn’t flawless, of course. One assumes that Americans of Swedish ancestry and Swedes of Swedish ancestry are different in important respects, e.g., the Americans descend from Swedes who had a somewhat higher risk-tolerance, or for whom other confounding variables apply. Moreover, Americans of Swedish ancestry have presumably assimilated to prevailing cultural norms. What is interesting, however, is that a disproportionately large share of Americans of Swedish ancestry are clustered in a region that Scott Sumner discussed in a fascinating post-election post:

There’s a big blob of counties where Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois come together, which are solid blue.  Why is that?  These are counties with farms and small towns, there are basically no cities of any size.  The biggest city is Madison, population 200,000, which is the big blue county in south central Wisconsin, on the eastern edge of the blob.  I grew up in Madison, but I don’t have a clue as to why those counties further west are blue.  I always assumed western Wisconsin was exactly like north-central and eastern Wisconsin—full of corn and dairy farms, and small towns with one church and 4 bars.  Counties full of people with northern European backgrounds.  Everywhere else in the Midwest the farm areas went for the GOP, except that strange blob that overlays parts of 4 states.  A few of those counties may have small cities with a few manufacturing firms, but look how uniform that blue area is.  There is obviously some difference that explains this, and now I feel like we should have been taught in school that southwestern Wisconsin is really weird. 

What is it that makes this “Driftless Area” so politically distinctive relative to other majority-white-Anglo rural regions outside of New England? Sumner doesn’t offer a hypothesis, but one of my correspondents shared his own speculative thoughts:

My own read is that this is largely driven by a combination of Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians,  who with rugged terrain and poor soil were pushed to keep up their social capital, unions, and public institutions more in line with current Northern European norms. In contrast, their ethnic cousins in North Dakota and Minnesota had to deal with more open prairies, plentiful German labor, and an evangelical belt. But this area only started to be an outlier from 2000 on. Picking up rural Norwegians in this region is arguably more essential to either party than the Latino vote. Republican losses in this region post-2000 may have been a casualty of the rise in religious social conservatism in the Republican party, and so this might an unusual case in which “upper-middle-reformism” could swing rural votes (and again, drive electoral outcomes in four states). 

I’m not sure my correspondent’s assessment is correct, but it does resonate with Tino’s thinking on the larger subject of the uneven distribution of social capital across U.S. ethnocultural groups and regions. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.