Some arguments are hard to settle but are too important to avoid. Here is one: whether the social crisis among America’s poor and working class – the collapse of the two-parent family, the weakening of communal ties – is best understood as a problem of economics or of culture.
This argument recurs whenever there’s a compelling depiction of that crisis. In 2012, the catalyst was Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart,” with its portrait of the post-1960s divide between two fictional communities – upper-class “Belmont” and blue-collar “Fishtown.” Now it’s Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” which uses the author’s Ohio hometown to trace the divergent fortunes of its better-educated and less-educated families.
Murray belongs to the libertarian right, Putnam to the communitarian left, so Putnam is more hopeful that economic policy can address the problems he describes. But “Our Kids” is attuned to culture’s feedback loops, and it offers grist for social conservatives who suspect it would take a cultural counterrevolution to bring back the stable working class families of an earlier America.
That idea makes some people on the left angry. As they see it, it’s money and only money that Murray’s Fishtown and Putnam’s hometown lack and need. And it’s unchecked capitalism and Republican stinginess, not the sexual revolution, that has devastated working-class society over the last few decades. Fight poverty, redistribute wealth, and you’ll revive family and community – it’s as simple as that.
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Their argument gets some things right. The U.S. economy isn’t performing as well as it once did for less-skilled workers. Certain regions – like Putnam’s Ohio – have suffered painfully from deindustrialization. The shift to a service economy has favored women but has made low-skilled men less marriageable. The decline of unions has weakened professional stability and bargaining power for some workers.
And yet, for all these disturbances and shifts, lower-income Americans have more money, experience less poverty and receive far more safety-net support than their grandparents ever did. Over all, material conditions have improved, not worsened, across the period when their communities have come apart.
Between 1979 and 2010, for instance, the average after-tax income for the poorest quintile of U.S. households rose from $14,800 to $19,200; for the second-poorest quintile, it rose from $29,900 to $39,100.
Meanwhile, per-person anti-poverty spending at the state and federal level increased sixfold between 1968 and 2008 – and that’s excluding Medicare, unemployment benefits and Social Security. Despite some conservative skepticism, this spending did reduce the poverty rate (though probably more so after welfare reform). One plausible estimate suggests the rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012, and child poverty fell as well.
These trends simply do not match the left-wing depiction of a working class devastated by Reagonomics.
Nor does the long-term trend in insurance coverage, or per-student spending, or other data. The left sometimes claims that the income instability of working Americans is unprecedented, for instance – but a 2007 Congressional Budget Office estimate found “little change in earnings variability” over the preceding decades.
This is a dense debate whose surface I can only skim. (Inequality as well as absolute income enters into it, as does immigration, cost inflation for key goods – including weddings! – and more.)
But the basic point is this: In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.
So however much money matters, something else is clearly going on.
The post-1960s cultural revolution isn’t the only possible “something else.” But when you have a cultural earthquake that makes society dramatically more permissive and you subsequently get dramatic social fragmentation among vulnerable populations, denying that there is any connection looks a lot like denying the nose in front of your face.
But recognizing that culture shapes behavior and that moral frameworks matter doesn’t require thundering denunciations of the moral choices of the poor. Instead, our upper class should be judged first – for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of “safe” permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.
This judgment would echo Leonard Cohen: “Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure / The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.”
And without dismissing money’s impact on the social fabric, it would raise the possibility that what’s on those channels sometimes matters more.
The New York Times
$14,800 The average after-tax income for the poorest quintile of U.S. households in 1979
$19,200 The average income for the same quintile in 2010
6 The number of times more per-person anti-poverty spending there was in 2008 over 1968 – excluding Medicare, unemployment benefits and Social Security
26 The poverty rate in 1967
15 The rate in 2012