Is a Loss of Morality to Blame for the Poor’s Problems?

According to Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,”that is precisely the problem. Not only are poorer people losing their values – which is bad in its own right – but in doing so they’re condemning themselves to further misfortune.

The book identifies some troubling trends among low-income whites, namely a lack of educational attainment, low marriage rates, fewer males in the labor force, and a growth in births out of wedlock. Poorer whites, despite popular belief, are apparently less religious than their wealthier counterparts too, whichMurrayalso sees as problematic. Though he focuses strictly on one race, his data broadly applies to most low-income people inAmerica.

By contrast, well-off whites are better educated, more pious, have adhered to the conventional nuclear family, and have a stronger work-ethic. Essentially,Murraybelieves that traditional values are the key to success inAmerica. If the poor were to follow the principled example of their wealthier peers – and he explicitly advises that they do – they might be better off.

There are many problems with this argument, even putting aside its disparagement of the poor (a sadly widespread attitude among the right). But I’ll start by sharing Times columnist Paul Krugman’s take on it:

Mr. Murray and other conservatives often seem to assume that the decline of the traditional family has terrible implications for society as a whole. This is, of course, a longstanding position. Reading Mr. Murray, I found myself thinking about an earlier diatribe, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1996 book, “The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values,” which covered much of the same ground, claimed that our society was unraveling and predicted further unraveling as the Victorian virtues continued to erode.

Yet the truth is that some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground. As far as I can tell, Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised?

I would argue that no, their not as vital as their vaunted status suggests, and I say that as someone who comes from just such a family.

For starters, “traditional families” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. There’s nothing about a nuclear family unit that necessarily guarantees a healthy and productive upbringing. Plenty of these families had – and continue to have – patriarchal fathers that operate like virtual tyrants. Age-old problems like infidelity, domestic violence, and spousal abuse have always bedeviled families, even before single-parent households and the like became common.

Many such families keep the appearance of stability only out of social and religious pressure – divorces and pre-marital relations are only prevalent nowadays because they’re actually allowed. Had those options existed in the past, without the social and even legal consequences that would follow, it’s likely that just as many people would’ve engaged in them. Heck, in some cases divorces are higher among religious couples than non-religious ones, so perhaps there is merit to holding off on marriage.

Besides, many areas of the world, and within this country, have fewer traditional families without sacrificing their social prosperity (think Scandinavia or the American Northwest), . Even within the US, states that are more secular and less conservative are mostly better off by comparison. There’s clearly more to social cohesion than a nuclear unit.

But I digress.

Still, something is clearly happening to the traditional working-class family. The question is what. And it is, frankly, amazing how quickly and blithely conservatives dismiss the seemingly obvious answer: A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.

Most of the numbers you see about income trends in America focus on households rather than individuals, which makes sense for some purposes. But when you see a modest rise in incomes for the lower tiers of the income distribution, you have to realize that all — yes, all — of this rise comes from the women, both because more women are in the paid labor force and because women’s wages aren’t as much below male wages as they used to be.

For lower-education working men, however, it has been all negative. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.

So we have become a society in which less-educated men have great difficulty finding jobs with decent wages and good benefits. Yet somehow we’re supposed to be surprised that such men have become less likely to participate in the work force or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals. And Mr. Murray also tells us that working-class marriages, when they do happen, have become less happy; strange to say, money problems will do that.

Basically, Murray is mixing up the causality here. It’s not that a lack of morals has led to a collapse in socioeconomic fortune, but the other way around: without steady jobs and opportunities, working-class people will have a harder time maintaining social stability. Financial distress isn’t exactly conducive to one’s psychological or physical well-being.

This isn’t to say that all poor people, by nature of their impoverishment, are doomed to depravity and insecurity. They’re just working with the hand they’ve been dealt. Societies change in response to material and economic conditions – the present-day rise of single-person households, for example, wouldn’t have been feasible at a time when most people were engaging in agriculture, which required intensive labor (hence the larger families). But it’s perfectly suited for a society that is increasingly urban, services-oriented, and mobile.

To be sure, the lower-classes clearly have their problems. Their socioeconomic status places them at higher risk for physical and mental health problems, low educational attainment, and other ills. Being poor places considerable stresses in other areas of your life, but that isn’t because you’re negligent, immoral, or have otherwise “lost your way” as far as values like hard-work and personal accountability.

If personal wealth was any indicator of morality, then hedge-fund managers and bankers wouldn’t have contributed to this catastrophic recession (after which most of them have still remained prosperous). Drug abuse wouldn’t be as high as it is among richer people either; our politicians, many of whom are well-off, should be paragons of virtue and competence, as should the CEOs who pocket millions while laying-off workers.

We need to end this cultural tendency to view poverty as a sign of inherent personal and social failing; conversely, we need to stop pretending that anybody who becomes financially successful in this country did so through honest hard work. One’s fortune is shaped by many factors, many of which are beyond our control (the family we’re born into, the genes we have, etc).

One more thought: The real winner in this controversy is the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, Mr. Wilson published “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,” in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.

So we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind. Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.

There’s a good amount of data demonstrating a correlation between high inequality and increased social dysfunction. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, it’s still something to keep in mind in light of the widely divergent level of prosperity between the richest and poorest Americans.

It used to be the case that a college degree, or even a diploma, wasn’t necessary to live comfortably. There were plenty of available jobs that didn’t require much, if any, academic background, especially in manufacturing. And thanks largely to unionization, this sort of work could be financially sustainable.

But a combination of technology, business innovation, and outsourcing has caused this venue to collapse, leaving many working-class people behind. The jobs that remain are low-paying, lack benefits, and don’t offer much upward mobility. Indeed, even jobs that require a degree don’t seem to pay as much as they used to, so racking up debt to get an education isn’t much of an option either.

Neither our economy nor our education system has caught up with this reality, condemning generations to poverty and hardship (in the US, the income of your parents is a much larger determinant of your own future income than in other countries).

I do agree that the problem may have a lot to do with our society’s values, but I think they’re a very different set of values from the one Murray and other conservatives are focusing on – our attitudes towards forging a just and prosperous economic and political system.



How Fares the Dream?

In relation to my previous post about Martin Luther King Jr., I’ll be discussing an article from the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman, who assesses the nation’s progress since King’s defining speech, “I have a dream.” Unfortunately – and perhaps unsurprisingly – the analysis isn’t very encouraging.

While Krugman, like myself, acknowledges the vast achievements we’ve made in reducing racial inequality (albeit with more work to be done), it appears that efforts to address the greater problem of socioeconomic inequality have remained stagnant, if not reversed.

…if King could see America now, I believe that he would be disappointed, and feel that his work was nowhere near done. He dreamed of a nation in which his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But what we actually became is a nation that judges people not by the color of their skin — or at least not as much as in the past — but by the size of their paychecks. And in America, more than in most other wealthy nations, the size of your paycheck is strongly correlated with the size of your father’s paycheck.

Goodbye Jim Crow, hello class system.

Economic inequality isn’t inherently a racial issue, and rising inequality would be disturbing even if there weren’t a racial dimension. But American society being what it is, there are racial implications to the way our incomes have been pulling apart. And in any case, King — who was campaigning for higher wages when he was assassinated — would surely have considered soaring inequality an evil to be opposed.

As highlighted in my proceeding post, King was well-aware of the systemic nature of America’s economic inequality, and he was arguably just as concerned about it as he was about racism. After all, the two issues were – and still remain – interconnected. Social justice relied on tackling the intersection of class, racial, and gender discrimination. It appears that one barrier to economic, educational, and political progression – race or gender – has been largely superseded or exacerbated by another –socioeconomic class.

As Krugman explains:

In the 1960s it was widely assumed that ending overt discrimination would improve the economic as well as legal status of minority groups. And at first this seemed to be happening. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s substantial numbers of black families moved into the middle class, and even into the upper middle class; the percentage of black households in the top 20 percent of the income distribution nearly doubled.

But around 1980 the relative economic position of blacks in America stopped improving. Why? An important part of the answer, surely, is that circa 1980 income disparities in the United States began to widen dramatically, turning us into a society more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.

To expand on this point, Blacks and other minorities have been disproportionately affected by our recent economic troubles. They have above average rates of unemployment, particularly among young males, and are far more likely to have lost their homes. Indeed, minorities were directly targeted to receive bad loans and junk mortgages. And because most of them work minimum wage jobs, they’re finding it much harder to pay down their debts or climb out of poverty in general, a matter not helped by the fact that average real wages have been stagnant since the mid-1970s.

Of course, this problem extends far beyond traditionally disadvantaged groups. Many middle-class and working class Americans have also been affected: their wages have failed to keep up with the higher cost of living, and they find themselves lacking the same venues for economic improvement that previous generations had. While millions remain out of work, millions more are underemployed, working in jobs that pay poorly, offer little career advancement, and/or don’t suit their qualifications (which were usually achieved through an expensive, debt-fueled education).

Needless to say, the implications of this are severe.

Think of the income distribution as a ladder, with different people on different rungs. Starting around 1980, the rungs began moving ever farther apart, adversely affecting black economic progress in two ways. First, because many blacks were still on the lower rungs, they were left behind as income at the top of the ladder soared while income near the bottom stagnated. Second, as the rungs moved farther apart, the ladder became harder to climb.

The Times recently reported on a well-established finding that still surprises many Americans when they hear about it: although we still see ourselves as the land of opportunity, we actually have less intergenerational economic mobility than other advanced nations. That is, the chances that someone born into a low-income family will end up with high income, or vice versa, are significantly lower here than in Canada or Europe.

I have explored this unfortunate development before. It seems the question posed in the article’s title has a double-meaning: it’s not only King’s iconic dream that seems threatened, but the American one as well. One of the most essential characteristics of our society has been the ability for individuals to transcend their origins and raise their standard of living through hard work and personal gumption. We were supposed to be a social meritocracy, a place where people succeed because of their own efforts, rather than because they were born into it.

This notion is as intractably tied to our national identity as the principles of liberty or democracy. It has also been practically beneficial, as it’s allowed us to tap into the human capital of numerous inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who wouldn’t have otherwise had a venue for their ideas and contributions. Now, such opportunities seem to be eroding, with Americans only disagreeing about why that is and how it should be fixed.

Furthermore, the lack of economic mobility is interrelated with our well-cited growth in wealth inequality.

Last week Alan Krueger, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave an important speech about income inequality, presenting a relationship he dubbed the “Great Gatsby Curve.” Highly unequal countries, he showed, have low mobility: the more unequal a society is, the greater the extent to which an individual’s economic status is determined by his or her parents’ status. And as Mr. Krueger pointed out, this relationship suggests that America in the year 2035 will have even less mobility than it has now, that it will be a place in which the economic prospects of children largely reflect the class into which they were born.

That is not a development we should meekly accept.

Nor is it a development that bodes well for future prosperity. This arrangement is not only unfair and unjust, but highly impractical. A nation cannot thrive politically or economically if the majority of its people are entrenched in a neo-aristocratic system – history has made that very clear, and we can see present-day examples of this in other countries with high rates of income disparity.

Moreover, unequal societies tend to have higher rates of social ills, economic volatility, and political paralysis than more equitable ones. As the public becomes increasingly divided along socioeconomic lines, its differences become reflected in politics and public discourses, making it harder to come together and address the root causes of all these problems. A vicious cycle thereby ensues.

Of course, all this is just speculation. The US could very well keep on thriving on the whole, even while its socioeconomic conditions on the ground worsen. But there’s ample evidence to show that this wouldn’t be sustainable in the long-term, and a nation that is rich overall but greatly impoverished in many areas can hardly be considered a success story. After all, during the past three decades that the American economy has grown vibrantly, middle-class expansion slowed and poverty, at best, remained unchanged.

So how do we even begin to address such a large and contentious issue?

Mitt Romney says that we should discuss income inequality, if at all, only in “quiet rooms.” There was a time when people said the same thing about racial inequality. Luckily, however, there were people like Martin Luther King who refused to stay quiet. And we should follow their example today. For the fact is that rising inequality threatens to make America a different and worse place — and we need to reverse that trend to preserve both our values and our dreams.

Indeed, the concern has become widespread enough that even Republican candidates have begun openly addressing it, a strange development given the party’s reactionary response to criticisms of the economic status quo. Additionally, several polls have borne out a growing perception among most Americans that inequality is a serious problem. 

But as Krugman noted, and Martin Luther King demonstrated, recognizing a national problem is only the beginning: people need to start acting on their concerns and making their discontent known. But as always, such actions are easier said than done.