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There’s been a lot of commentary from all sides about my recently published book, “Coming Apart,” which deals with the divergence between the professional and working classes in white America over the last half century.
Some of the critiques are fair, some are frivolous. But there’s one — “He doesn’t offer any solutions!” — that I can’t refute. The reason is simple: Solutions that are remotely practicable right now would not do much good.
The solution I hear proposed most often, a national service program that would bring young people of all classes together, is a case in point. The precedent, I am told, is the military draft, which ended in the early 1970s. But the draft was able to shape unwilling draftees into competent soldiers because Army officers had the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make their orders stick.
“Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.” - Charles MurrayAdministrators of a compulsory civilian national service program would likewise face young people who mostly didn’t want to be there, without being able to enforce military-style discipline. Such a program would replicate the unintended effect of jobs programs for disadvantaged youth in the 1970s: training young people how to go through the motions and beat the system. National service would probably create more resentment than camaraderie.
That said, I can see four steps that might weaken the isolation of at least the children of the new upper class.
For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office.
It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children. Those from the middle and working class, struggling to pay for college, can’t afford to work for free. Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.
So let the labor unions win this one: If you are not a religious organization and have more than 10 employees, the minimum wage law should apply to anyone who shows up for work every day.
We can also drop the SAT in college admissions decisions. The test has become a symbol of new-upper-class privilege, as people assume (albeit wrongly) that high scores are purchased through the resources of private schools and expensive test preparation programs.
Instead, elite colleges should require achievement tests in specific subjects for which students can prepare the old-fashioned way, by hitting the books.
Another step would replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action. This is a no-brainer. It is absurd, in 2012, to give the son of a black lawyer an advantage in college admissions but not do the same for the son of a white plumber.
“The bachelor’s degree has become a driver of class divisions at the same moment in history when it has become educationally meaningless.” - Charles MurrayFinally, we should prick the B.A. bubble. The bachelor’s degree has become a driver of class divisions at the same moment in history when it has become educationally meaningless. We don’t need legislation to fix this problem, just an energetic public interest law firm that challenges the constitutionality of the degree as a job requirement.
After all, the Supreme Court long ago ruled that employers could not use scores on standardized tests to choose among job applicants without demonstrating a tight link between the test and actual job requirements. It can be no more constitutional for an employer to require a piece of paper called a bachelor’s degree, which doesn’t even guarantee that its possessor can write a coherent paragraph.
If I’m advocating these ideas now, why didn’t I propose them in “Coming Apart”? Because, sadly, they won’t really make a lot of substantive, immediate difference. Internships that pay the minimum wage are still much more feasible for affluent students than for students paying their own way through college. The same students who score high on the SAT score high on achievement tests, and for the same reason (they’re smart and well prepared).
Even without socioeconomic affirmative action, a high proportion of academically gifted children from the working class already get scholarships to good schools. And even if job interviews are opened up to people without a bachelor’s degree, those with the best real credentials will still get the job, and they will be drawn overwhelmingly from the same people who get the jobs now.
There may, however, be a symbolic value in these reforms. The changes that matter have to happen in the hearts of Americans. The haves in our society are increasingly cocooned in a system that makes it easy for their children to continue to be haves. Recognizing that, and acting to diminish the artificial advantages of the new upper class — especially if that class takes the lead in advocating these reforms — could be an important affirmation of American ideals.
Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at AEI.
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Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
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