“The Two Americas” (well-off and not) was a theme of John Edwards’s presidential campaign.* Half a century earlier, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, focusing on the very poor. More recently, “Occupiers” have tried to divide the 99% against the 1%.
Comes now Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame), with a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. Setting aside the non-white underclass (a small population percentage) as a special case, Murray sees two increasingly separated societal segments. One is an upper class of maybe 5% of the population (I’d say it’s higher), mostly well educated, well employed, married, fit and healthy non-smokers. In the lower class (around a fifth of the population), many don’t even complete high school, have lower paid jobs or none, beget children outside of marriage, smoke, and grow overweight. The two groups don’t tend to live in the same communities, eat in the same restaurants, watch the same TV shows or movies, or read the same things (if they read at all, in the second group). And the upper class has almost no contact with the lower.
There’s also the great middle, but Murray sees the uppers as out of touch with them as well; and lower class pathologies are creeping upward. Nationwide, over 40% of U.S. births are now outside marriage**; and waistlines are creeping (well, ballooning) outward. In many ways, the middle shares more with the bottom than the top.
Snobbery you might call it, but Murray doesn’t like this picture, and he has a point. Single parenthood might be termed a lifestyle choice; obesity not entirely people’s fault; and so forth. Murray also laments declining religiosity, and for that I might say good riddance. But underemployment is no lifestyle choice; and indeed, as Murray argues, the total picture is not a pretty one for those stuck in it. The upper class’s values, habits, practices, and overall culture are conducive to a rewarding life; for the lower group, not so much.
Now, progressives and the Left, with their numerical egalitarian obsession, seem to think this can be fixed with money. Just give the second group more cash (preferably from first group wallets) and all will be well. (And these are the folks who decry “materialism.”)
Not so fast says David Brooks in a recent column. He argues that over the past half century, while America has become more prosperous, peaceful, open, and fair, the social fabric deteriorated. Perhaps an ethos of greater tolerance in general meant more tolerance for dysfunction; e.g., illegitimacy losing its stigma. But in any case Brooks is dismayed how liberal economists (while they haven’t shouted down conservatives) have completely eclipsed liberal sociologists and psychologists, advancing a crude economic determinism regarding the problems at issue. They’re wrong, Brooks believes; this isn’t just about money. Even in the Depression, we didn’t see 40% illegitimacy. There was more social trust, and sense of community, even among the disadvantaged. Note particularly that black families were likewise far more stable then, despite the far greater severity of racism and consequent economic deprivation. (So “it’s not the economy, stupid.”)
Brooks disavows that people in “disorganized communities” have bad values. Their goals aren’t different, but they’re blocked from living out those aspirational values, not just by low incomes, but by their social realities – a dysfunctional environment. Thus, Brooks adds, even if we miraculously got back all those old time manufacturing jobs (that Obama and the Democrats keep uselessly prattling about), we actually wouldn’t have the stable, responsible people to fill them. Economic policies are not enough; we also need policies to rebuild orderly communities, he says, which requires sociological thinking. But, alas, “the public debate is dominated by people who stopped thinking in 1975.”
Murray similarly doubts we can fix the problem via redistributionist economics or even, again, the “good jobs at good wages” panacea. Indeed, he believes America is hugely erring by copying Europe’s reliance on government programs, run by bureaucrats, to address pathologies of broken families and communities, an approach that’s bound to fail. (In fact, we’ve been trying it for half a century and matters only worsen.)
What Murray urges instead is a “civic great awakening,” with the upper classes venturing out of their enclaves to engage with the rest and talking up marriage, education, working harder, and neighborliness. Unfortunately, even if Murray’s diagnosis of the problem makes sense, this answer seems utterly naive. The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist wondered “how the lower class will respond to hearing that the main help it needs is an infusion of its betters’ morals.”
My view: yes, we have problems. Every advancement brings its problems; life is complex, and changing ever faster; and it’s often hard to judge the balance among what’s improving and what’s deteriorating. But in the big picture most people live way better now than ever.*** So maybe the price we pay for, say, more openness and tolerance, is well worth it. (For example, a key factor in declining marriage and legitimacy rates is that many women are now free from the societal and economic constraints that once pushed them to marry.)
Of course, none of this means we should just shrug at the downsides. I agree with Brooks that government could be helpful, but not by giving people checks. Obviously, a big part of the problem lies in the education system, which government runs. I keep mentioning our high school drop-out rate, which should be literally unacceptable. Injecting competition and choice into the system would help a lot.
Meantime, more broadly, culture passes from generation to generation, and this includes the lower class cultural dysfunctionalities at issue. But culture can change, and be changed. A wonderful model for what can be achieved is Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, with a “Baby College” for parents to show them what many don’t realize they’re doing wrong. We know that how children are socialized in their earliest years enduringly affects how they behave in society for the rest of their lives. HCZ has demonstrated that all children –all people — can succeed, and none should be just written off – or, dare I say it – left behind.
* Did you know it’s still operating? Yes, it reported spending almost a million bucks of contributions last year – on flights, hotels, restaurants, etc. Isn’t this a wonderful country?
** Ominously, for women under 30, it’s reached 50%; for blacks, 73%! Single mothers aren’t necessarily bad mothers; yet statistics show that, for a host of obvious reasons, their children do tend to fare worse in life.
*** My own last book has a chapter titled The Two Americas – Rich and Richer – arguing that nearly all Americans today are actually “rich” on any reasonable historical or global comparison.