Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Economic and Cultural Polarization of America

By Irving Wladawsky-Berger

Coming Apart: the State of White America 1960-2010, a recently published book by scholar and author Charles Murray, has generated some very interesting and important discussions about America’s increasingly polarizated society.  In a January NY Times Op-Ed, David Brooks wrote that Coming Apart will prove to be one of the most important books of 2012 because it “so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.”

The key premise of the book, as described by Murray in this Wall Street Journal column, is that “America is coming apart. For most of our nation’s history, whatever the inequality in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world – for whites, anyway.”  For most of its history, a major hallmark of American democracy has been the comfortable mingling of the social classes.  “Americans love to see themselves this way,” writes Murray.  “But there’s a problem: It’s not true anymore, and it has been progressively less true since the 1960s.”

Fifty years ago, there were large income gaps between rich and poor, but the differences are much bigger today.  More important, those income gaps did not lead to differences in behavior.  There was a common civic culture, – the American way of life, – “that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace.  It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.”

For example, in the 1960s white population, just about all men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, the vast majority were married, and only a small percentage of babies were born outside of marriage.  These figures were pretty much the same regardless of social class or income.

The situation changed drastically in the intervening fifty years.  “America has polarized,” writes Brooks.  “The word class doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes.  You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.”  In particular, there are large behavioral differences between the upper and lower tribes, comprising 20 and 30 percent of the country respectively.

Those in the upper tribe or professional class are highly educated, holding at least a bachelor’s degree.  They tend to work as managers in business, financial institutions and media industries; physicians, attorneys and architects; engineers, scientists and professors; and similar such well-paying jobs requiring considerable education.  Those in the lower tribe or working class generally have at most a high school diploma.  They tend to have blue-collar jobs, or relatively low-skill white-collar or service jobs.

The behavioral contrasts are stark.  In 1960, 94 percent of professional class adults were married, versus 83 percent in 2010.  But marriage rates have dramatically declined for members of the working class, from 83 percent in 1960 to 48 percent in 2010.  In 1960, few white births were out of wedlock.  Today, the equivalent figures are 44 percent for working class women, and 6 percent for professional ones.  In 1968, only 3 percent of prime-age males with a high school education or less were out of the labor force; in 2008 the figure was 12 percent.  For white males with at least a college education not much has changed, with only 3 percent out of the labor force.

Murray cites a number of additional cultural differences between the two groups, from attitudes toward weight, exercise and smoking, to their eating and drinking habits, choice of TV shows and movies, vacations and leisure activities, and child-raising practices.  All in all, a vast cultural gulf now separates these two groups.

No one disputes the dramatic cultural and economic polarization that has taken place over the past fifty years. Most everyone agrees with Murray’s analysis.  For example, just two weeks after the release of Coming Apart, the NY Times published a front page article on the growing percentage of births out of marriage: 57 percent for women with a high school diploma or less, 38 percent for those with some post-secondary schooling, and 8 percent for college-educated women.  Similarly, a glance at the latest US employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals sharp differences in unemployment rates by educational attainment: college degree or higher: 4.2%; associate degree or some college: 7.3%; high school graduates, no college: 8.3%; and no high school diploma: 12.9%.

But, there are big differences of opinion as to the causes of this polarization.  Charles Murray, who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, believes that the culture wars of the 1960s, along with the growth of social programs during this same period jump-started the downward trend of the working class.  He writes:

“As I’ve argued in much of my previous work, I think that the reforms of the 1960s jump-started the deterioration.  Changes in social policy during the 1960s made it economically more feasible to have a child without having a husband if you were a woman or to get along without a job if you were a man; safer to commit crimes without suffering consequences; and easier to let the government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of.”

“But, for practical purposes, understanding why the new lower class got started isn’t especially important.  Once the deterioration was under way, a self-reinforcing loop took hold as traditionally powerful social norms broke down.  Because the process has become self-reinforcing, repealing the reforms of the 1960s (something that’s not going to happen) would change the trends slowly at best.”

“Meanwhile, the formation of the new upper class has been driven by forces that are nobody’s fault and resist manipulation.  The economic value of brains in the marketplace will continue to increase no matter what, and the most successful of each generation will tend to marry each other no matter what.  As a result, the most successful Americans will continue to trend toward consolidation and isolation as a class.  Changes in marginal tax rates on the wealthy won’t make a difference.  Increasing scholarships for working-class children won’t make a difference.”

Others disagree with Murray, believing that major changes in economic and job conditions are largely responsible for our growing social polarization, rather than moral decline or government programs.  In an extensive review, journalist David Frumm wrote that Coming Apart, “. . .is an important book that will have large influence.  It is unfortunately not a good book – but its lack of merit in no way detracts from its importance.”

Frumm considers Coming Apart “not a good book” because, in his opinion, it completely ignores the deterioration in job opportunities and consequent decline in life prospects of workers with no more than a high school education, not only in the US but across the developed world.  Job prospects have declined, and median wages have stagnated for less-skilled male workers since the 1960s, and have gotten progressively worse since then.

The impact of stagnating wages and increased unemployment on the family was first observed in the black community.  In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, – a sociologist who was at the time Assistant Secretary of Labor and later became a US Senator, – published an important and controversial report: The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, which became known as The Moynihan Report.  As summarized in the Wikipedia entry:

“ . . .Moynihan argued that, without access to jobs and the means to contribute meaningful support to a family, black men would become systematically alienated from their roles as husbands and fathers.  This would cause rates of divorce, abandonment and out-of-wedlock births to skyrocket in the black community (a trend that had already begun by the mid-1960s) – leading to vast increases in the numbers of female-headed households and the high rates of poverty, low educational outcomes, and inflated rates of abuse that are associated with them.  Moynihan made a compelling contemporary argument for the provision of jobs, job programs, vocational training, and educational programs for the Black community.”

At the time, the unemployment rate of low skilled black males was much higher than that of white males.  But, only a few years later, the picture started to change.  In his review of Coming Apart, Frumm points out that at present, the marriage rates, percentage of two-parent homes, labor force participation by prime-age men and full time work by prime-age adults are pretty much the same for all working class Americans regardless of race and ethnicity.  The deteriorating job and social conditions in the black community that so alarmed Moynihan in 1965 are now equally true for all working class Americans.

“Working-class America is an increasingly troubled and dysfunctional place,” writes Frumm.  A similar sentiment was expressed in an excellent but depressing March, 2010 article in The Atlantic, How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America by deputy managing editor Don Peck, where he wrote:

“The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning.  Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults.  It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men.  It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities.  It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades.  Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come.”

In the meantime, as a result of the digital technology revolution and the forces of globalization, the job opportunities and earnings for high-skilled, highly educated professionals have continued to rise.  Moreover, as we look at job prospects for the future, the present situation will continue or even accelerate.

Routine blue and white collar jobs will continue to be automated by increasingly powerful technologies or outsourced to countries with significantly lower wages.  On the other hand, we can expect strong demand for people with expertise in complex problem solving and for those with good management and communications skills.  This is the future that those in the professional classes are preparing their children for, providing them with a good education, stimulating activities, and a stable family life.

But, regardless of how we got here, there are no easy answer to our present situation.  In his January OpEd, David Brooks proposed a National Service Program “. . .that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. . . in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.”  But, in a recent NY Times column, Charles Murray was not hopeful that such programs trying to bring young people of all classes together would work: “Solutions that are remotely practicable right now would not do much good.”

David Frumm reminds us that America went through a similar situation in the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression.  That period saw great concentrations of wealth as a result of the rapid industrialization the country was going through, including railroads, electricity, telephones, cars and factories of all sorts.  At the same time, working class Americans, including the large numbers that were moving from farm to cities as well as newly arrived immigrants, were suffering poor working conditions and social breakdowns.  The country went through several decades of violent strikes.  “American labor relations in the period from 1880 through 1920 were the most violent on earth,” wrote Frumm.

But eventually, the country responded with what we now call the Progressive Era, the period of social activism and political reform between 1890 and 1920.  New laws did away with many of the excesses that enabled the so-called robber barons to amass fabulous wealth during the Gilded Age; income tax laws were enacted; government reforms were implemented to decrease rampant corruption; labor laws improved working conditions; and public education for all was dramatically expanded.

It is interesting to note that today we are talking about the urgent need for many of the same programs, including curbing the business behaviors that led to the financial crisis; comprehensive government and tax reform; major educational improvements to significantly increase the number of Americans with a post-high school education; and new job creation programs.

We badly need our own, – pragmatic and non-ideological, – 21st century version of the Progressive Era.  The environment is very different from that of a century ago.  We need fresh new ideas and far reaching innovations suitable to our times.  Let us all hope that the country can come together to enact such programs, before our increasingly polarized society reaches a serious breaking point.

2 replies »

  1. 1. You can’t force people to live by each other that are so different and expect harmony. This political correctness that has been forced down people throats is not working even though it is the prevailing “way.” People still feel like they feel and find others like them in private.
    2. Unless the “leaders (race-baiters)” step up and try to help the lower classes take responsibility (by doing it themselves as well) while also providing money, programs, etc. circumstances will never change. People have to be rewarded for true skills and knowledge not privilege or victimization.

    Right now because government, congress, our so called leaders are only about maintaining their power with money from the global corps and the military-industrial complex then nothing will change. Maybe the Ron Paul types will do like the Libs of the 60’s did meaning start getting elected at the local level until they can get elected in the higher levels of government. This could take 50 years so in the mean time you just prepare and take care of your own by finding like thinking others.

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