Inequality and Family Culture – A Disagreement With My Wife

images-1I recently left my wife a newspaper clipping, writing “Read” on it. She returned the favor by writing “Total Rubbish!” on it.

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.” images-2It’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.

UnknownI 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.

Unknown-1Two 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. Unknown-2And 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. Unknown-3And 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. Unknown-4Even 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.

8 Responses to “Inequality and Family Culture – A Disagreement With My Wife”

  1. Paul Landsberg Says:

    Frank, hey! A couple of thoughts struck me, some admittedly not directly on your post.

    The graph you show on “college bonus” is the one that irritates me the most. While I won’t doubt the data, the story it tells is absolutely one dimensional. Going to college makes you more money. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees. Now step back and let’s overlay or put right next to that, the average cost of college at a private university. Or a public university. Now build further and overlay the amount of debt in this country due to college loans. At some point the massive money flowing to pay college loans will clearly be GDP reducing versus future investment.

    Purely on your post I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate my queasiness on causation versus correlation and if it is addressed correctly. Beyond that, what data points do we have from European countries? My perception is that the marriage rate in Germany is similarly plunging. I haven’t dug deeper. If I am correct, is their economic divide growing?

    Finally, the semi-conclusion that lack of two parent families drives all ills leads to arguably politician-like sophomoric conclusions like “morality and marriage will save us all!” Wouldn’t it be better to start with the data that N (a number) American households are single parent households. What economics structures, tax laws, labor laws, incentives, support systems, maximize the opportunity for advancement and success?


  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Paul, thanks. Having a daughter at Tufts, I certainly don’t disregard college costs. But here again we see the same divide: I can afford to send my kid to Tufts; for most less affluent families, it’s impossible, once more blocking the path toward betterment.
    I didn’t say single parenthood “drives all ills,” but it is an extremely important factor. And as to your final sentence, I would suggest that we have a lot of factors, both governmental and societal that, if not encouraging single parenthood, make it much more acceptable than it used to be. The consequences of that are kind of predictable. While we do have to deal with the reality of those consequences, we also need to be concerned with what factors cause them.

  3. Rose Nunez Smith Says:

    I was a grantwriter for a Housing Authority for four years. While I was there I saw an unmistakable trend in the Agency’s residents: Among the tenant group who were single mothers (as opposed to the elderly or the disabled), the women who entered a stable partnership — usually marriage to a man, but there were some gay women who partnered well, too — with a non-felonious, non-abusive paycheck earner were by far the likeliest to “graduate” from subsidized housing. The Agency’s employees were discouraged from pointing this out; it came dangerously close to judging or promoting lifestyles. But there was no getting around that living room elephant. Women who didn’t marry/partner were not just poorer, but were serially preyed upon by what can only be called bad men: the felons, the child abusers, the meth cooks — who invariably moved on to the poor woman’s Agency neighbor after getting her and her children evicted for violating Agency tenancy rules.

    There wasn’t a grant program for that kind of thing.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Rose, many thanks for your inside view.

  5. dryder23 Says:

    Hi Frank – It seems like you’re just picking your favourite correlate (“cultural factors”) and calling it a cause; we need better evidence than that! My understanding of the literature suggests that education quality is a powerful driver of social and economic mobility; you highlight education levels yourself. Therefore the unfortunate American habit of funding schools locally, leading to the expensive good school areas vs. the cheap bad school areas seems a reasonable alternative hypothesis as to a (the?) prime driving factor, with a positive feedback cycle. (Continuing at the college level, as Paul points out.) The cultural factors could be a consequence.

    During my ten years in the States, this school funding model struck me (as a Canadian) as completely insane. Here we have economically mixed schooling, thus far less in the way of good-expensive vs. bad-cheap neighbourhoods. Provincial-level funding goes where it’s most needed. And we have significantly better social and economic mobility.

    (Racism and related insane levels of imprisonment must also play a role. The latter is surely partially caused by the education gap also. And imprisonment is of course a major cause of single motherhood!)

    Sorry, but you Americans are crazy. 🙂 How you’re going to get yourselves out of this pickle I have no idea.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks. But I really don’t think spending more money on “bad” schools is the answer. In a great number of cases, kids come to those schools with “pre-existing conditions” due to the kind of home environments they’ve experienced, which is very prejudicial to their educational outcomes. So, again, I do think the single mom syndrome is a big causative factor.

  7. dryder23 Says:

    I agree that simply spending more money on the bad schools in poor districts isn’t going to be a quick-fix answer, and I agree that single-motherhood is involved. The current problems are a result of a spiralling descent involving education quality and levels, crime & incarceration rates, and family structure (at least). (Not to mention the racially divided historical start point produced by slavery and segregation.)

    The important question is how to reverse the spiral so it goes in an upwards direction, supporting social and economic mobility for the poor. And there is good evidence that educational attainment and quality has excellent potential to achieve this:

    This review also shows that the current U.S. education system, from pre-school to college, reinforces income gaps at every step along the way, where the poor have systematic and viciously cycling reduced opportunities. “There is good reason to expect that education will continue having only a moderate impact on economic mobility in the United States until more poor children develop school readiness skills during the preschool years, until K-12 schools are more effective in imparting basic skills and in helping more poor children complete high school, and until more poor students enter and complete college.”

    With respect to single motherhood: education reduces teenage pregnancy and incarceration rates (same review; note that in 2004, a 14 year old black child had a 50% chance of their father having been imprisoned; see . This review also notes that a commitment to education is required to turn things around.)

    Finally, contrary to partisan studies (from e.g. the Heritage Foundation), increased spending on poor schools can indeed help:

    In short, there is considerable evidence that single-motherhood is caused by lack of education as well as incarceration rates, which is also caused by lack of education. There’s also good evidence that a lack of education is caused by the unequal school funding model prevalent in the U.S. Finally, there’s good evidence that addressing this inequality can help turn the spiral around in the other direction.

    So I think a good long-term policy is exactly that: to spend more money on bad schools, and less on the good ones. (Well, there should be nuance here, e.g. it should be targeted towards hiring better teachers rather than administration or computers.) I know we both favour evidence-based policy over what “feels right”. So….

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    I do not disagree with you that poorer Americans are grossly disserved by the quality of schools. It is one reason why I favor school choice.

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