(Source: New York Times)
Persistent poverty is America’s great moral challenge, but it’s far more than that.
As a practical matter, we can’t solve educational problems, health care costs, government spending or economic competitiveness so long as a chunk of our population is locked in an underclass. Historically, “underclass” has often been considered to be a euphemism for race, but increasingly it includes elements of the white working class as well.
That’s the backdrop for the uproar over Charles Murray’s latest book, “Coming Apart.” Murray critically examines family breakdown among working-class whites and the decline in what he sees as traditional values of diligence.
Liberals have mostly denounced the book, and I, too, disagree with important parts of it. But he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers.
My touchstone is my beloved hometown of Yamhill, Ore., population about 925 on a good day. We Americans think of our rural American heartland as a lovely pastoral backdrop, but these days some marginally employed white families in places like Yamhill seem to be replicating the pathologies that have devastated many African-American families over the last generation or two.
One scourge has been drug abuse. In rural America, it’s not heroin but methamphetamine; it has shattered lives in Yamhill and left many with criminal records that make it harder to find good jobs. With parents in jail, kids are raised on the fly.
Then there’s the eclipse of traditional family patterns. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.
Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).
One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”
Jobs are also critical as a pathway out of poverty, and Murray is correct in noting that it is troubling that growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force. The proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are “out of the labor force” has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a famous report warning of a crisis in African-American family structures, and many liberals at the time accused him of something close to racism. In retrospect, Moynihan was right to sound the alarms.
Today, I fear we’re facing a crisis in which a chunk of working-class America risks being calcified into an underclass, marked by drugs, despair, family decline, high incarceration rates and a diminishing role of jobs and education as escalators of upward mobility. We need a national conversation about these dimensions of poverty, and maybe Murray can help trigger it. I fear that liberals are too quick to think of inequality as basically about taxes. Yes, our tax system is a disgrace, but poverty is so much deeper and more complex than that.
Where Murray is profoundly wrong, I think, is to blame liberal social policies for the pathologies he examines. Yes, I’ve seen disability programs encourage some people to drop out of the labor force. But there were far greater forces at work, such as the decline in good union jobs.
Eighty percent of the people in my high school cohort dropped out or didn’t pursue college because it used to be possible to earn a solid living at the steel mill, the glove factory or sawmill. That’s what their parents had done. But the glove factory closed, working-class jobs collapsed and unskilled laborers found themselves competing with immigrants.
There aren’t ideal solutions, but some evidence suggests that we need more social policy, not less. Early childhood education can support kids being raised by struggling single parents. Treating drug offenders is far cheaper than incarcerating them.
A new study finds that a jobs program for newly released prison inmates left them 22 percent less likely to be convicted of another crime. This initiative, by the Center for Employment Opportunities, more than paid for itself: each $1 brought up to $3.85 in benefits.
So let’s get real. A crisis is developing in the white working class, a byproduct of growing income inequality in America. The pathologies are achingly real. But the solution isn’t finger-wagging, or averting our eyes — but opportunity.
(Source: New York Times)