It was a column by Ross Douthat (a Republican and Christian). He poses the question “whether the social crisis among America’s poor and working class – the collapse of the two-parent family, the weakening of communal ties – is best understood as a problem of economics or culture.” It’s the latter, Douthat says, identifying post-sixties permissiveness as the key, which he faults upper classes for promoting, as acceptable for themselves, but ignoring its effects “on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents.”
My wife dissed the piece as racist and classist, and having no real answer for the problem Douthat fingers. That latter point is fair, the others not. Recognizing that lower class Americans suffer from cultural pathologies is not to blame them; indeed, Douthat again blames the better-off. And as David Brooks has argued, it’s not that lower classes lack the right values or aspirations but, rather, face obstacles living those values in their social environment.
I have discussed Charles Murray’s 2012 book, Coming Apart, seeing America increasingly divided by class; Douthat too references Murray, and also Our Kids, a newer book by sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame), similarly describing a growing divide between better-educated and less-educated families.
That is the real root of the inequality we hear so much about. And, as Douthat contends (the reason I found him worth reading), money inequality is not itself the problem, that’s a symptom of the greater fact of cultural difference. It’s not that the rich hog wealth at the expense of the rest, or there’s insufficient redistribution – it’s that too many people are kept back, by cultural dysfunction, from rising out of disadvantage.
Two distinct American family models are at issue. In one, well-educated people marry each other and become the affluent helicopter parents Douthat mentions, raising kids to get similarly educated and replicate the model. Putnam says they give kids protective “air bags” that aren’t usually deployed in the other type of family, which tends to feature neither marriage nor higher education nor (in consequence) affluence. And that too is self-perpetuating. Sure, single moms often make heroic efforts; but the fact is that, on average, for a host of understandable reasons, kids tend to do much better in two-parent families. (Especially well-educated affluent ones.) Children from such families do better on the “marshmallow test” for impulse control, which has been found powerfully predictive for future life success. Stressed single mothers just cannot provide the quantity or quality of parenting that married couples can.
That, again, is America’s great cultural divide, it’s the big reason behind the economic divide – and it’s growing larger. The wage gap keeps widening between the college-educated and others. And while marriage rates remain quite high among well-educated people, for the rest the bottom has fallen out, with a majority of younger mothers now being unmarried.
You cannot argue that economic difficulties are driving this. Because, for all the whining about “these economic times,” in fact – as Douthat highlights – even lower-income citizens have more money, and more safety-net support, than in earlier generations. Yet, he says, those past generations “found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.” And Putnam shows many key ways in which affluent and non-affluent families differ much more now, in habits and culture (like how they talk to and socialize their kids*), than a few decades ago. This inhibits social mobility. Again, married versus unmarried life is key.
Consider this. During the Great Depression, did marriage rates collapse and single parenthood explode? No, they did not, despite far more unemployment, much lower incomes, and much less generous government support. Even black Americans – who suffered not only those Depression era economic challenges, but also far worse discrimination than now – maintained very high marriage rates, with two-parent families predominating. Today black single parenthood is at seventy-three percent.
This is not “the economy, stupid.” This is cultural. Again, economic disadvantage is more a consequence than a cause. Hence better jobs, higher minimum wages, more government benefits, “tax the rich,” etc., can’t fix this. What will? Like Douthat (and Putnam), I don’t have all the answers (though I’ve made some suggestions in my post on the marshmallow test, and here too). But anyhow, at least properly understanding the problem is a necessary starting point.
*At the upper end of the social spectrum, the ambition is kids getting into college. At the other end, it’s kids staying out of jail.