Tuesday, January 31, 2012

America’s Damaged Working Class

In “The Gated Country,” we repeated Charles Murray’s description of how the upper class lives so differently from the rest of us. Murray, however, has documented another profound division below the top: that between upper middle class college graduates and a lower class whose education stopped with high school.

Murray examined only non-Latino whites in order to clarify how broad and deep U.S. cultural divisions have become. And he looked only at those between the ages 30 to 49 to show the trends aren’t explained by ages of marriage or retirement.

To represent the 20% of whites between 30-49 who are college graduates working as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media, Murray has created the fictional community of Belmont (after an archetypal upper-middle-class suburb near Boston).

And to represent the 30% of whites between 30-49 with no degree beyond high school, who if they work, are in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job such as cashier, or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist, he invents Fishtown (after a neighborhood in Philadelphia that has been home to the white working class since the Revolution—see picture).

In his examination of differences, Murray emphasizes single parenthood because he believes children born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than those raised in intact families, an unwelcome reality even after controlling for parents’ income and education. And he justifies his look at religiosity by noting that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors.

Below, a chart that lays out the differences between Belmont and Fishtown:

* = “de facto secular” is someone who professes no religion or attends a worship service no more than once a year.

Murray’s statistics portray two starkly different worlds within the U.S. below the upper class “gated country” at the top. “Belmont” is aspirational, upper middle class, and part of an America that works. “Fishtown” presents a problem Murray sees as cultural, a lower class caught in a downward spiral of deterioration because 1960s social policy made it economically more feasible to have a child without 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 government handle community problems you and your neighbors formerly took care of.

Murray doesn’t see any easy solution to closing a gap that was smaller in 1960, and is gigantic today. But, he says:
There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending "nonjudgmentalism." Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn't hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.[emphasis added]

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