America today looks quite different from the America of 50 years ago. Segregation is over, we no longer fear nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and information technology has advanced beyond our wildest dreams. But not all changes have unquestionably been for the better. As President Obama pointed out in a recent speech:
Since 1979, our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of the growth has flowed to a fortunate few. The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income; it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more.
No doubt, economic inequality today is more severe today than in the past; and as the president tries to move inequality into the spotlight, few experts come to mind more quickly than Dr. Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart. Dr. Murray argues that economic inequality is merely one aspect of a larger social shift, one where rich and poor Americans differ not just economically, but in their personal habits and lifestyles as well.
Among the poor, we see a trend of habits of good behavior dissolving. Murray examines this largely through data from the IPUMS data collection. Marriage rates among the working-age poor have been steadily declining since the late 1970s. The divorce rate for that group is now more than three times what it was in 1970. More and more children are living with a single parent. Murray also provides evidence to how marriage, across the socio-economic spectrum, is beneficial for raising children and contributes to overall happiness. He does not dispute that single parents can do a good job raising a kid, but it’s usually harder.) Labor force participation is down particularly among the poor, and this remains true even accounting for changes in the overall unemployment rate. Violent crimes among the poor have increased, as demonstrated by incarceration rates. Taken altogether, the poor today behave less virtuously than they did half a century ago.
To put this in more lifelike terms, Dr. Murray examines Fishtown, a hypothetical poor community in Philadelphia. The community has seen a rise in teen pregnancy and the number of single mothers. While welfare has ensured that single mothers and their children are taken care of, it has displaced the fathers, who are no longer needed to support their families. These fathers have lost the pride and responsibility of being breadwinners–a sense of purposelessness results. Young boys, who are especially in need of role models, are deprived and end up following a similar destructive path. Fishtown has deteriorated to the point that “it calls into question the viability of… working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”
The rich, meanwhile, have done quite well for themselves. Referencing the IPUMS statistics database, Murray shows how marriage rates among the well-off have remained high, and divorce has climbed at a slower rate. Kids are still raised in complete nuclear families. The trends of decline among the poor have not affected the rich.
Beyond that, the wealthy have also become wealthier at a faster rate. Dr. Murray pins this mainly on the SAT. And while this seems like an obscure thing to “blame,” he makes a strong case for it: Prior to the SAT becoming widespread around 1960, elite schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford drew from a small pool of candidates among the East Coast elite, with students of only a slightly higher IQ than those at other colleges.
As the SAT grew in significance, a large disparity developed as the smartest, highest-scoring students could attend the best colleges and become a part of the elite. This infusion of talent meant the new elite was more productive, which led to higher wages. This was combined with advances in technology that made raw brainpower more important. As Murray explains, “the higher tech the economy, the more it relies on people who can improve and exploit the technology, which creates many openings for people whose main asset is their exceptional cognitive ability.” Today’s computer programmers, for instance, exploit talents that were largely unimportant fifty years ago.
Dr. Murray considers this significant because the elite, particularly those in politics, make decisions that greatly affect the lives of everyone in society. A growing divide means they are less able to understand the people their decisions impact, undermining our democracy.
Unfortunately, the issue is more complex than many across the political spectrum would have us believe. It’s not a lack of universal college education or insufficient welfare programs that keep some people poor. Dr. Murray identifies how government institutions have in fact contributed to the problem. As a society, we need to reassess the role that welfare programs play and how they impact poor communities. Even if there’s a (poorly distributed) material gain, the loss in happiness, community, and moral character must be understood as well.
Image credit: CC by incendiarymind.