The Belonging Barometer

The State of Belonging in America

Nichole Argo, PhD and Hammad Sheikh, PhD


March 7, 2023


March 7, 2023

Belonging is a fundamental human need, and one that is linked to many of the most complex challenges of our time.

Without a sense of belonging, individuals and communities suffer; with it, they thrive. Yet, because belonging is notoriously difficult to measure, it is often ignored in efforts to address the deep fractures in our societies.

One purpose of this report is to call attention to belonging as a factor that matters deeply for leaders and stakeholders across diverse sectors. We make the case for including belonging in the design and implementation of programs and policies across all areas of life in the United States. A second purpose is to propose a nuanced new tool for measuring belonging—the Belonging Barometer—that is robust, accessible, and readily deployable in the service of efforts to advance the common good. As with any new tool, it is our hope that the Belonging Barometer can and should be refined and improved upon over time. We offer it up to changemakers across the world and welcome feedback and collaboration.

In this report, we review the concept of belonging and introduce a new measure, the Belonging Barometer. We then describe initial findings based on a nationally representative survey regarding the relationship between the Belonging Barometer and health, democracy, and intergroup dynamics in the US. Next, we report on the state of belonging across five life settings: family, friends, workplace, local community, and the nation. Lastly, we briefly discuss emerging themes and considerations for designing belonging interventions.

The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America was produced by Over Zero and the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council.

  • Belonging is measurably multifaceted. Belonging is about the quality of fit between oneself and a setting. When one belongs, they feel emotionally connected, welcomed, included, and satisfied in their relationships. They know that they are valued for who they are as well as for their contributions, can bring their whole and authentic self to the table, and are comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions regardless as to whether they diverge from dominant perspectives. In addition, they understand how things work within a given setting, feel treated equally, and perceive that they are able to influence decisions.
  • Belonging is vital for American society. Belonging Barometer scores were associated with critical life outcomes in health (e.g., better general and mental health; increased life satisfaction; decreased pain, stress, and loneliness), workplace (e.g., increased retention and greater willingness to recommend one’s job), social cohesion (e.g., higher satisfaction with local community; increased trust in one’s neighbors, other local residents, and local government; more civic engagement; decreased feelings of marginalization; decreased fear of demographic change; more openness to diversity; and greater desire to meet people who are different than oneself), and democracy (e.g., greater satisfaction with life and democracy in the US; increased support for our democratic system of government).
  • A majority of Americans report non-belonging, a cumulative term that includes people who are unsure or ambiguous about whether they belong and those experiencing exclusion. Sixty-four percent of Americans reported non-belonging in the workplace, 68% in the nation, and 74% in their local community. Further, nearly 20% of Americans failed to report an active sense of belonging in any of the life settings we measured, and a small subset (6%) report exclusion across all life settings. These deficiencies in belonging may hold significant costs to individuals, institutions, and our society as a whole.
  • Socioeconomic status and other systemic factors are strongly associated with belonging. Americans were more likely to report belonging if they also saw themselves as better off or much better off economically than the average American. Other associated factors included being older; identifying as a woman or a man vs. another gender; or identifying as heterosexual/straight or homosexual/gay rather than bi/ pansexual, asexual, or queer. In some life settings belonging also correlated with race, religion, and immigration status, however these differences often become statistically insignificant once we controlled for socioeconomic status. While we did not test associations between belonging and other forms of systemic marginalization, we note that socioeconomic status itself is influenced by them—this is the case, for example, with redlining, which prevents wealth accumulation, or being subject to racism or xenophobia, which would serve to block opportunities in ones life. For these reasons, belonging interventions—in families, workplaces, local communities, and at the national level— must be designed with an eye towards the life experiences that influence an individual systemically.
  • Large percentage of Americans feel they are treated as “less than others” in their daily lives, and this experience is associated with non-belonging across all life settings—not only in local community but also nationally, in the workplace, and even among friends and family. The Americans who report being treated as “less than” tend to be younger, first-generation or non-citizen immigrants, identify as non-Hispanic white, or identify as a gender minority. The range of demographic categories who reported being treated as “less than others” in their local communities suggests a broad social breakdown in civic norms and behavior, or at least the experience of such among a wide set of groups. It also presents an opportunity for local communities to inquire about whether their residents experience indignity in daily interactions, and to seek to address any issues
  • Belonging and diversity are interdependent, an insight that will grow increasingly important as the US becomes increasingly diverse. Americans with one or more diverse friends reported higher levels of overall friendship belonging. Moreover, Americans living in diverse neighborhoods reported less marginalization and more openness to demographic change if they experienced local belonging. Our research suggests that we all win when we strive to inculcate belonging in diverse workplaces or civic spaces, and conversely, we all lose when we don’t combine diversity with belonging. However, our survey also revealed that large percentages of Americans lack relationships with people of a different race/ethnicity, partisan affiliation, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or country of origin. Taken together, these facts underscore the need to invest in social contact across differences.
  • Belonging is attainable. In today’s polarized, socially segregated, and increasingly diverse America, investments in belonging are more urgent than ever. Fortunately, there is burgeoning research on how to design effective belonging interventions, and there are already organizations and communities piloting such work. As work in this space continues, understanding what is and what is not working, and why, will be critical for advancing the field. While this first report serves as a “snapshot” of belonging in the US today, the Barometer can be adapted to measure levels of belonging over time (e.g., for workers, students, residents, citizens), or to track pre- and post-intervention changes. With such a robust measure, it will be possible to tailor interventions to improve belonging, and to identify the interventions that work best within a particular context.

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