Acton Institute Powerblog

Why the culture matters for economic flourishing

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

“Moral ecology is the new frontier of political economy: the culture in which the free society thrives — or destroys itself.” –Michael Novak

In assessing and addressing the economic issues of the day, we tend to look first to tangible or mathematical solutions, cutting and re-cutting various economic pies as we ponder different policies and pathways to higher employment, better wages, and all-around material prosperity.

Yet as the Heritage Foundation’s latest Index of Culture and Opportunity aptly argues and demonstrates, the broader cultural factors have plenty of influence on all the rest.

“Culture and opportunity are linked together,” writes J.D. Vance in the study’s introduction, demonstrating “something often lost in our politics these days: that the opportunities that exist in our society and our citizens’ perceptions of those opportunities shape our shared culture, and that our culture in turn shapes the opportunities available to individuals and communities.”

Leveraging 10 years of data, the Index offers a unique perspective into particular shifts and trends in the culture, looking at indicators in three distinct categories: cultural (“family, religious practice, and civil society”), poverty and dependence (“marriage and poverty, workforce participation, and welfare spending and participation”), and general opportunity (“education, jobs and wealth, and economic freedom”).

Taking 31 indicators into consideration, the study highlights areas for both optimism and concern, as illustrated in the following chart:

In reviewing some of these categories, many will surely wince or shrug, wondering what, for instance, the divorce rate or abortion rate or religious-attendance rate have to do with freedom, opportunity, and economic prosperity.

As Vance explains, breaking out of that mindset is necessary if we hope to get to the real roots of what we’re starting to see on the surface. “Too rigid a focus on the material permits us to divorce concerns about opportunity from those about culture,” he writes. “The comfort zone of many elites and thus their language trends toward the mathematical and technocratic. We speak about education and workforce development, the skills gap, automation and offshoring, and trade deficits in part because these things are easier to measure…It is harder to measure culture and how it affects the people who occupy it.”

Indeed, given the mounting evidence, the connections are increasingly clear:

But talk about it we must, because the evidence that culture matters should now overwhelm any suggestion to the contrary. We know, thanks to the work of experts like Nadine Burke Harris, that childhood trauma and instability make it harder for children to concentrate at school, deal with conflict successfully, or form stable families themselves later on. We know that two of the biggest factors driving regional differences in upward mobility are the prevalence of single-parent families and concentrated poverty, indicating that both family and neighborhood structure matter in the lives of our nation’s working class. We know that declining participation in civic institutions like churches destroys social capital and eliminates pathways to the middle class in the process. We know that the expectations that children have for themselves can drive their performance on standardized testing and a host of other endeavors.

Connecting those dots will require intentionality, and once distilled, the task of translating such wisdom into effective action will take significant work, whether at the individual/community level or in our responses via politics and policy. But it begins with a shift in our thinking.

“Addressing those problems will not be easy,” Vance concludes. “The problems of culture and opportunity demand smarter and better policy at all levels of government, participation of civic institutions, and energetic private-sector players, but asking the right questions is a necessary first step.”

For more, see the full report.

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD

For the Life of the World is an entertaining film series that explores the deeper meaning of Salvation. Have you ever wondered, “What is my Salvation actually FOR?” Is it only about personal atonement, about getting to heaven, or something that comes later? Is it just to have a “friend in Jesus?”

Join Evan Koons and his friends – Stephen Grabill, Amy Sherman, Anthony Bradley, Makoto Fujimura, John M. Perkins, Tim Royer and Dwight Gibson – as they discover a “new perspective,” the BIGGER picture of what it means to be “in the world, not of it.” This seven-part film series will help you, your friends, church or organization investigate God’s Economy of All Things – OIKONOMIA (a Greek word that has a lot to say about God’s plan for his creation, the world, and us.)

Explore how God’s purposes are woven into every area of our lives: family, work, art, charity, education, government, recreation and all creation! The Bible calls us Strangers and Pilgrims, living in "the now and not yet" of God’s Kingdom Come on earth. We are also called to be salt and light, to have a transforming presence among our neighbors. Rediscover the role of the church and how our lives lived on earth matter in God’s plan for the world.

Designed for deep exploration, the series invites viewers to watch the series again for new insights. Also, check out the companion Field Guide to jump-start group and individual investigation and enhance the film experience! FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD Field Guides are available in print or via streaming access at

2nd Edition

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.