America No Longer Works for Half Its People (Or More)

Americans live in two different worlds; never the twain shall meet

Posted Feb 18, 2012

More than half of children born to women under 30 years old are born to unwed mothers. This is bad because it bespeaks unstable family structures that have negative consequences for children throughout their lives—in most cases they'll never catch up. Doomed from birth. Not only won't their moms and dads be standing on the sidelines for all of their soccer games, but their parents won't be able to get them those great internships when they're in college that lubricate their way into the ruling class. Truth be told, they're not even going to go to college.

These differences are very racially based: three-quarters of African-American children are born out of wedlock; half of Latinos; a quarter of whites. But the latter figure is rising. And the differences are really based on—or related to—education: over 90 percent of college-educated women are married mothers, but just over 40 percent of women with at most a high school diploma.*

Slavery was easier to grasp than this

This and related topics are much on people's minds, particularly around the publication of Charles Murray's book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," which is about how America is falling apart because people no longer have good values like those supporting marriage (conservatives' story)—or is it because the economy no longer allows stability in working class homes (liberals' story)?

Whatever—everyone's talking about it. The Times' conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, did so twice—first fairly critically ("Can the Working Class Be Saved?") since Douthat dislikes that Murray recommends just giving up all social support programs, then positively ("What Charles Murray Gets Right") pointing out that his data about the deterioration of the working class can't be denied.

The Times has another conservative columnist—intellectual David Brooks  He criticized Murray's book because it fails to acknowledge decades of research by social scientists showing that this day was inevitably coming. But Brooks spends more time criticizing liberals for saying it is only the poor economy that has caused this sad state of affairs. 

When Brooks uses the term "liberal," he is often refering to his arch enemy at the Times, columnist Paul Krugman. So let's see—Krugman has written about Murray three times or more—but who's counting? In any case, Krugman always fulfills Brooks' charge that liberals can only blame the economy for our problems, which Brooks calls "The Materialistic Fallacy."

First (February 7), Krugman wrote "Blaming the Victims of Inequality" straight from the liberal playbook: "Of course, the sudden fuss about values makes perfect sense from a political point of view, as a distraction from the issue of soaring incomes at the top." Then (February 9) Krugman wrote "A Strange Form of Social Collapse," in which he asked whether things are "really all that bad" and pointed out declining murder and teen pregnancy rates. Then (February 10) Krugman wrote "Money and Morals." While noting that Murray does "highlight some striking trends," his concluding point is (surprise!): "Traditional values aren't as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe—and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America's working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause."

All of this isn't going to get better. No, I don't mean that Brooks and Krugman won't be having dinner together soon. I mean that we will continue to separate America into two different worlds—Murray points out that never has America been so segregated into zip codes marked by great and growing divergences in lifestyles.

Can a nation so divided continue to stand? Lincoln's house divided seems like a comparatively simple problem—at least in its identification. As Douthat describes Murray's vision of bastions of elite America, the system is "encouraging the best and brightest to work and live (and mate) within the cocoons of what he calls the SuperZIPS, segregating Americans by intelligence to an unprecedented degree, and creating a self-reinforcing pattern in that to those with much social capital, much more is given, while to those without, even what they have is taken away."

The funny thing is that this last sentence (the better off get better off), coming from conservative Murray via conservative Douthat, sounds to me like a liberal argument, while the people I know who exemplify it are virtually all liberals—you know, the ones who live near me in Park Slope.

Why this state of affairs continues—and expands—is because these bastions of privilege are not limited to the one percent of the super wealthy, but include many—although far from all—of those who graduate college and who have gained (inherited?) enough privileges that they can pass them along to sustain their offspring—more or less—in the same lifestyles in which they grew up.

Stay tuned to see if this house divided will collapse or not!

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* Many of these pregnancies are unintended, because less well-educated women have less access to and command over birth control. This is why the one social policy Republicans have come up with— restricting birth control—actually worsens the main problem they claim to be concerned about!

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