One of the most hyped studies of the century may need to be reevaluated.
In 2006, the results of a sociological study burst from the seams of a staid academic journal into the public consciousness. The findings made a huge splash and have continued to reverberate ever since. In the article, “Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades,” Miller McPherson and his colleagues claimed that in 2004, one out of every four Americans had no one they talked to about matters important to them. That was a dramatic drop from twenty years before; in 1985, only one in ten said they had no one they had talked to about important matters in the previous six months.
Suddenly, sad and scary headlines were everywhere. “The lonely American just got a little bit lonelier,” said the New York Times. “Study: 25% of Americans have no one to confide in,” USA Today proclaimed. A segment on NPR was called “Social isolation.” A few years later, a book written by other authors featured those findings prominently; it was called “The Lonely American.”
In 2017, Vivek Murthy, who was Surgeon General of the United States from 2014-2017 and who has been interviewed recently about how hospitals can improve their response to the coronavirus, wrote an influential paper on the purported “loneliness epidemic” for the Harvard Business Review. In it, he pointed to the worrisome decline in confidants over the past decades.
It is now simply part of the accepted wisdom of our time that Americans are terribly lonely. There’s no one they can count on for support.
Scholars such as Barry Wellman and Claude Fischer have long expressed skepticism about the findings. So far, though, the public has remained mostly unaware of those critiques or just not persuaded by them.
As of November 2019, that should have changed. That’s when sociology professors Ashton Verdery of Penn State University and Colin Campbell of East Carolina University published their markedly different findings in “Social support in America: Stratification and trends in access over two decades,” in the journal Social Forces.
Analyzing Census Bureau survey data from representative U.S. samples collected six times from 1993 through 2011, the researchers found no decrease -- and in fact, a slight increase over time – in the proportion of Americans who said that if they had a problem, they could get all the help they needed from family or friends.
How the study was conducted
In each of the six years -- 1993, 1998, 2003, 2005, and 2011 -- a cross-section of Americans was recruited to participate in the Survey of Income and Program Participation. A total of nearly 150,000 adults responded. In addition to answering many demographic questions, participants responded to these two questions, asked sequentially, about the availability of social support from family and friends:
- Family: “If you had a problem with which you needed help (for example, sickness or moving), how much help would you expect to get from family living nearby?”
- Friends: “If you had a problem with which you needed help, how much help would you expect to get from friends?”
In response to each question, participants could choose one of four answers:
(1) No help
(2) Very little help
(3) Most of the help needed
(4) All of the help needed
The questions posed in this study were not identical to the ones in the study that got so much attention. They key question in the previous survey was, “Looking back over the last six months – who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” McPherson and his colleagues were asking about the support that people had received, whereas Verdery and Campbell were asking about the support people believed to be available to them, if they needed it. The focus of the earlier study was on confiding, whereas the current study asked about help with things such as sickness or moving. Both studies, though, were about social support.
How many Americans are getting all the help they need?
In 1993, 42% of Americans said that if they had a problem, they could get all the help they needed from family. By 2011, that number increased slightly to 46%.
In any given year, fewer people said they could get all the help they needed from friends than from family, but the increase over time was greater for the help from friends. In 1993, 26% said they could get all the help they needed from friends. That jumped to 34% in 2011.
How many Americans, in 2011, believed they could get all the help they needed, either from family or friends? More than half: 51.7%.
How many are getting none of the help they need?
In 2011, only 13.8% of Americans said that they could get none of the help they needed from family. Even fewer people, only about 10%, said they could get none of the help they needed from friends.
The number of Americans, in 2011, who thought they could get none of the help they needed, from family or friends, was just 4.4%. That is a strikingly lower number than the 25% from the McPherson study who said they had no one they could confide in.
Which groups are especially likely to get the help they need?
Women and Men
Women believe they can get more help from their family than men do. Although women’s friendships seem to get more attention and respect than men’s, it is the men who think they can get more help from their friends.
High School Graduates and College Graduates
People with a high school education believe they can get more help from their families than people with college degrees. The college graduates, though, believe they can get more help from friends.
Different Kinds of Families
Three kinds of households were compared: married with children, married with no children, and single-parent households. (Findings were not reported separately for single people with no children.)
Averaged across all years, married people with no kids reported the highest level of access to support from both family and friends, while single parents reported the lowest levels. Over time, though, the gap in support from friends narrowed. By 2011, there was no significant difference at all between the help that single parents thought they could get from their friends and the help that married parents thought they could get. (The married people without kids were not included in those year-by-year analyses.)
Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics
In 1993, Whites said they had greater access to support from family and friends than Blacks or Hispanics. By 2011, though, there were no differences among the three groups in the belief that they could get help from their family if they needed it.
Young Adults, Middle-Aged, and Old
Middle-aged Americans were least likely to say that they could get help that they need from family or friends. Both younger adults and older ones said they had more access to social support. The disadvantage of the middle-aged Americans was greater for help from family than for help from friends.
Other research has shown that older people generally have fewer people in their social networks than middle-aged people. So why do they think they can get access to more of the help that they need? Verdery and Campbell suggest that the people who remain in the lives of older people may be of particular high quality – the seniors know they can count on them.
The authors summed up their findings this way:
“Has access to social support changed in the United States in the last two decades? At a broad level, we find little evidence that it has…In fact, in contrast to a “panic in the United States about a possible decline in social connectivity”…, we find that many Americans report having access to all the help that they need from family or friends.”
More than half of all Americans now believe that they can get not just some help, but all the help they might need from either their family or their friends. Only a sliver, 4.4%, don’t think they can get any of the help they need from family or friends. Those are not the kinds of findings that grab headlines. And in fact, so far as I can tell, none of the media sources that ran with the scare stories about the supposedly isolated and lonely Americans have come back to reassure us that when it comes to social support, most of us, by our own reports, are doing just fine.
[Some of the findings I’ve described here were not in the Social Forces article but were provided to me by Professors Verdery and Campbell. I am very grateful to them for that help.]