Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Family Breakdown and Working Class Depression

"Father Knows Best" (1954-60)
Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will recently noted that when House GOP budget chair Paul Ryan spoke of a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work” and added “there’s a real culture problem here,” he was accused of “racism, blaming the victims.”

Will wrote that Ryan
had sauntered into the minefield that a more experienced Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a liberal scholar who knew the taboos of his tribe — had tiptoed into [i]n March 1965, [saying] that “the center of the tangle of pathology” in inner cities — this was five months before the Watts riots — was the fact that 23.6% of black children were born to single women, compared with just 3.07% of white children.
Forty-nine years later, 41% of all American children are born out of wedlock; almost half of all first births are to unmarried women, as are 54% and 72% of all Hispanic and black births, respectively.
These oft-repeated figures remain shocking, staggering.

Will believes that
The family is the primary transmitter of social capital — the values and character traits that enable people to seize opportunities. Family structure is a primary predictor of an individual’s life chances, and family disintegration is the principal cause of the intergenerational transmission of poverty. [emphasis added]
The 1960s brought us a civil rights movement that “dismantled barriers to opportunity,” and a simultaneous “social regression driven by the explosive growth of the number of children in single-parent families,” resulting in a “continually renewed cohort of adolescent males from homes without fathers” producing “turbulent neighborhoods and schools where the task of maintaining discipline eclipsed that of instruction.”

Will added that Moynihan observed “something ominous . . . the decline in the minority—then overwhelmingly black—male unemployment rate [accompanied a] simultaneous rise of new welfare cases.”

Will explains:
Policymakers had long [believed] in social salvation through better economic incentives [rather than consider] the decisive factors are not economic but cultural — habits, mores, customs[. I]t is easier for government to alter incentives and remove barriers than to alter culture.
To Will, any government belief in money-based solutions “is refuted by the importance of family structure,” with “the challenge” facing broken families “to acculturate those unacquainted with the culture of work to the disciplines and satisfactions of this culture.”

Will quotes Nicholas Eberstadt’s findings that “labor force participation ratios for men in the prime of life are demonstrably lower in America than in Europe” and “a large part of the jobs problem for American men today is that of not wanting one[,” leading to an] “unprecedented exit from gainful work by adult men.”

Will asks “why the problem Moynihan articulated half a century earlier has become so much worse while . . . the astonishingly rapid receding of racism and discrimination — has become so much better,” and blames “what Moynihan called ‘the leakage of reality from American life.’”

Will and Ryan fault government policy for turning newly-free minorities into government dependents. Transfixed by the juxtaposition of Moynihan’s 1965 focus on single-parent families with the simultaneous liberal triumph of civil rights, the “War on Poverty,” and the “Great Society,” they treat activist government as the cause of family breakdown.

Charles Murray’s Coming Apart--a work we have covered in detail here--also blames government policy for family breakdown, which Murray, Will, and Ryan all place at the center of working class difficulties. Murray, by writing about whites only, frees his analysis from accusations of racism, a ready charge when both Will and Ryan talk about “inner cities.”

Family breakdown is worse among blacks, but affects all races.  Murray specifically blames 1960s social policy that
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.
Modern America began in the 1960s. There were three revolutions--sexual, civil rights, and equal rights for women--all made more emphatic by the government’s Vietnam disaster that deprived our then-WASP male national elite of its moral authority. Vietnam paved the way for revolution in America just as World War I triggered the Russian Revolution and World War II led to the triumph of Chinese Communism.

The old culture that idealized the American “Father Knows Best” family with the father providing, the mother nurturing, and the children protected, turns out to have been the 1960s most consequential casualty.

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