Charles Murray is at it again. He burst onto the national scene in the ’80s, announcing that he knew why the African-American non-marital birth rate had risen so dramatically: the government made them do it. He explained that welfare and a host of other liberal sins had weakened the moral fiber of the poor, producing disaster. It would take free market discipline to instill the right values once again. Now Murray is back with a new book and a long article in the Wall Street Journal attempting to explain income inequality among whites. His claim: working class whites have lost ground because they have abandoned a commitment to marriage, religion, and hard work. In his world, unemployment is high because those on the losing end of today’s economy refuse to work, non-marital births occur because of a lack of emphasis on marriage, and the upper class can assist only by expressing its disapproval and “preaching what it practices” — presumably investments in Ivy League education, parent-subsidized internships, and marriage between two investment bankers at 32.
In this new work, Murray says no five-point plan can change things. What he doesn’t tell you is how little his last five-point plan accomplished. Murray’s past work helped spark the movement that led to the abolition of welfare “as we know it” in 1996. And the welfare mothers who were able to get and hold jobs — in no small part due to government subsidized health benefits and day care — were in fact better off. But Murray claims no credit because throughout the twenty-year attack on welfare (and the steady erosion of benefits that went with it) marriage rates continued to decline.
Murray-like prescriptions — even when they are right that the behavior of the working class is a problem — have always failed. The simple fact is that prosperity and equality improve behavior more than privation or preaching. Consider the Irish potato famine. The potato blight wiped out the principal source of food for Catholic Ireland while leaving the cattle and wheat of Protestant Ireland (the 1% of their day) unaffected. The British responded with soup kitchens — for six months. Then, Murray-like editorial cartoons in London started to depict the English taxpayer with drunken Irishmen on their backs. The editorials complained that soup kitchens encouraged idleness and worse — too many Irish births. The English brought back market discipline (and upper class disapproval of Catholic behavior) and their solution worked: the Irish population fell by a quarter in the next several years, due in roughly equal parts to death and emigration. But no Englishman heralded the improved moral qualities of Irish Catholics. The improvement in the reputation of the Irish took jobs and equal community membership, factors the Irish never found under British rule.
Murray can’t tell you what really caused the class divide in marriage because the class-based changes in families he laments closely track the class warfare of the 1%. Up through the mid-’80s, upper class and working class divorce rates rose and fell together. Starting in 1990, the lines diverged, with the divorce rates of college graduates falling back to the level of the mid-sixties (before no-fault divorce) while the divorce and non-marital birth rates of everyone else continued to rise. What really happened?
First, the income of college graduate men increased handsomely in the ’90s and the incomes of the 1% increased even more through the next decade.
Second, the income of all other men declined in real dollar terms (adjusted for inflation). American industry enjoyed impressive gains in productivity, but working class men received almost none of the benefits. Moreover, while many conservatives argue that the increase in global competition explains the change, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson present a convincing case in Winner Take All Politics that the real cause lies in deregulation and the decimation of union protections.
Third, women’s employment increased in the same period and women’s wages gained the most vis-à-vis men at the bottom of the income scale. As recently as 1990, women of all educational levels earned about the same percent of the hourly wages of men with the same education. To the extent the gendered “wage gap” varied, college educated women enjoyed slightly more parity with men than working class women. By 2007, the wage gap varied dramatically by class. College-educated women earned a smaller percentage of the hourly income of their male counterparts, while the wage gap between working-class men and women shrunk substantially.
Fourth, working-class male employment in the same period became less stable, while employment stability for college graduate men did not change and employment stability improved for women. Today, working-class women find they have to work and generally can in the expanded service sector (think WalMart) that offers stable jobs with some benefits. Working-class men are far more likely to work in construction or small businesses with frequent layoffs. And as Newsweek reported, “laid-off men tend to do less — not more — housework, eating up their extra hours snacking, sleeping and channel surfing (which might be why the Cartoon Network, whose audience has grown by 10 percent during the downturn, is now running more ads for refrigerator repair school).”
The result: a change in family norms. College-educated women postpone childbearing, invest in their careers, and conduct a long search for a compatible and reliable mate. The working class increasingly cannot afford college (defunding public education is very effective class warfare), and working class women have little faith in the available men. A working class mother who comes home from a job she doesn’t like to find the father of her children sleeping on the couch or playing video games doesn’t stay with him. Christian parents tell me that, like Sarah Palin, they approved of their daughters’ decisions not to have an abortion, but they were relieved when their daughters did not marry the unreliable Levi Johnstons who fathered the children.
It is time to recognize the real cause of family change. A corporate strategy that destroys unions, raids pension funds, lays off workers, and values speculative or dishonest ventures (i.e. subprime loans) over long-term institutional development may earn six figure bonuses, but it destroys families and communities. It is the values of Murray’s elite, not working class values, that should be the focus of family reform.
June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.