MONEY AND MORALS
Lately, inequality has reentered the national conversation.
Occupy Wall Street gave the issue visibility, while the Congressional Budget Office supplied hard data on the widening income gap. And the myth of a classless society has been exposed: Among rich countries, America stands out as the place where economic and social status is most likely to be inherited. So you knew what was going to happen next.
Conservatives are telling us that it’s not really about money; it’s about morals. Never mind wage stagnation and all that, the real problem is the collapse of working- class family values, which is somehow the fault of liberals. But is it really all about morals? No, it’s mainly about money.
To be fair, the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback, Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” does highlight some striking trends. Among white Americans with a high school education or less, marriage rates and male labour force participation are down, while births out of wedlock are up. Clearly, white working-class society has changed in ways that don’t sound good. But the first question one should ask is: Are things really that bad on the values front? 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 Murray, I found myself thinking about an earlier diatribe, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1996 book, “The De-Moralisation 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, 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? 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 realise that all‚ yes, all of this rise comes from the women, both because more women are in the paid labour 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 workforce or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals.
Murray also tells us that working- class marriages, when they do happen, have become less happy; strange to say, money problems will do that.
One more thought: The real winner in this controversy is the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson. Back in 1996, the same year Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, 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, in any case, the social changes taking place in America, working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.