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Even during upturns, blue-collar Americans are marrying and working less, writes Charles Murray
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Some reviewers of “Coming Apart,” my new book about the growing cultural divide between America’s upper and lower classes, have faulted me for ignoring the role of the labor market in undermining once widely shared values involving marriage and hard work.
As these critics see it, the loss of our common culture is a result not of cultural changes but of shifts in policy and the economy. Over the past four decades, they argue, the U.S. has shipped high-paying manufacturing jobs overseas and undermined the labor unions that could protect workers’ pay and benefits. Working-class earnings fell more than 20% from their high point in 1973, men were no longer able to support families, and marriage eroded accordingly. Demoralized workers fell out of the labor force. The problems of the new lower class would fade away, they suggest, if only we would use public policy to generate working-class jobs at good wages.
There are two problems with this line of argument: The purported causes don’t explain the effects, and whether they really were the causes doesn’t make much difference anyway.
Start with the prevalent belief that the labor market affected marriage because of the disappearance of the “family wage” that enabled a working-class man to support a family in my base line year of 1960.
It is true that unionized jobs at the major manufacturers provided generous wages in 1960. But they didn’t drive the overall wage level in the working class. In the 1960 census, the mean annual earnings of white males ages 30 to 49 who were in working-class occupations (expressed in 2010 dollars) was $33,302. In 2010, the parallel figure from the Current Population Survey was $36,966—more than $3,000 higher than the 1960 mean, using the identical definition of working-class occupations.
This occurred despite the decline of private-sector unions, globalization, and all the other changes in the labor market. What’s more, this figure doesn’t include additional income from the Earned Income Tax Credit, a benefit now enjoyed by those making the low end of working-class wages.
If the pay level in 1960 represented a family wage, there was still a family wage in 2010. And yet, just 48% of working-class whites ages 30 to 49 were married in 2010, down from 84% in 1960.
What about the rising number of dropouts from the labor force? For seven of the 13 years from 1995 through 2007, the national unemployment rate was under 5% and went as high as 6% only once, in 2003. Working-class jobs were plentiful, and not at the minimum wage. During those years, the mean wage of white males ages 30 to 49 in working-class occupations was more than $18 an hour. Only 10% earned less than $10 an hour.
If changes in the labor market don’t explain the development of the new lower class, what does? My own explanation is no secret. In my 1984 book “Losing Ground,” I put the blame on our growing welfare state and the perverse incentives that it created. I also have argued that the increasing economic independence of women, who flooded into the labor market in the 1970s and 1980s, played an important role.
“As women needed men less, the social status that working-class men enjoyed if they supported families began to disappear.” – Charles MurraySimplifying somewhat, here’s my reading of the relevant causes: Whether because of support from the state or earned income, women became much better able to support a child without a husband over the period of 1960 to 2010. As women needed men less, the social status that working-class men enjoyed if they supported families began to disappear. The sexual revolution exacerbated the situation, making it easy for men to get sex without bothering to get married. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that male fecklessness bloomed, especially in the working class.
I barely mentioned these causes in describing our new class divide because they don’t make much of a difference any more. They have long since been overtaken by transformations in cultural norms. That is why the prolonged tight job market from 1995 to 2007 didn’t stop working-class males from dropping out of the labor force, and it is why welfare reform in 1996 has failed to increase marriage rates among working-class females. No reform from the left or right that could be passed by today’s Congress would turn these problems around.
“No reform from the left or right that could be passed by today’s Congress would turn these problems around.” – Charles MurrayThe prerequisite for any eventual policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn’t even looking for work is behaving badly. There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren’t working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums.
To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don’t call them “demoralized.” Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer. Equally important: Start treating the men who aren’t feckless with respect. Recognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor’s college-educated son who won’t take a “demeaning” job. Be willing to say so.
This shouldn’t be such a hard thing to do. Most of us already believe that one of life’s central moral obligations is to be a productive adult. The cultural shift that I advocate doesn’t demand that we change our minds about anything; we just need to drop our nonjudgmentalism.
It is condescending to treat people who have less education or money as less morally accountable than we are. We should stop making excuses for them that we wouldn’t make for ourselves. Respect those who deserve respect, and look down on those who deserve looking down on.
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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© 2015 American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research