Opinion

The Great Debate

Inequality’s pernicious twin is our growing cultural divide

By Don Peck
December 20, 2012

I enjoyed reading Reuters’ textured survey of the nature of inequality in America, and how government shapes it, shrinking the gaps between us through some of its actions and widening them through others. One comes away from the series with an appreciation for the complex blend of factors — federal policy, technology, unevenness of educational opportunity, the evolution of the market — that has helped propel some of us to where we are today, while failing to lift others.

High and rising inequality is more tolerable, of course, if everyone is getting ahead.  And it is less troubling if mobility up and down the ladder is free and easy — in particular if the children of those at the bottom can readily climb upwards, and if the children of those at the top do not remain there as a birthright.  But neither of these conditions inheres strongly in the United States today.  Over the past decade or more, median incomes have been stagnant. And intergenerational mobility in modern America is actually lower than it is in Europe, notwithstanding America’s reputation as the land of opportunity.

The Reuters series touches briefly on the growing bifurcation of family culture in the United States. Increasingly, college graduates marry each other, pool their relatively high incomes, and, in a variety of ways, push their children ahead. Lower-skilled, lower-income Americans lead less secure lives, and — partly as a result — they marry less and less. In a variety of ways, their children fall behind.

This cultural bifurcation bears closer scrutiny. College graduates make up only about a third of the adult population.  Within the other two-thirds, as the sociologist W. Brad Wilcox has noted, single parenthood and other signs of familial disarray are increasing rapidly. In the 1970s, the cultural habits and family structures of high school graduates closely resembled those of college graduates. Today, they more closely resemble those of high school dropouts.

The decline of blue-collar work has been particularly hard on men without a college degree, who have seen their wages and job opportunities shrink steadily. Men with only a high school diploma have seen their earnings, adjusted for inflation, shrink by a quarter since 1969, according to analysis by the economists Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney. Many of these men have dropped out of the workforce altogether: In 1967, 97 percent of prime-age men with only a high school degree were working; in 2010, just 76 percent were. These shifts have surely played a role in the decline of marriage in the working class, and increasingly the middle class — and in the rise of educational and developmental obstacles facing working- and middle-class children.

To my mind, the greatest danger our country faces involves the interaction and mutual reinforcement of economic inequality and cultural bifurcation. It is possible, if these trends continue, that over the next generation or two, class divides could eventually grow so wide as to become unbridgeable.

Family culture is strong among well-educated and economically successful Americans. But it would be a mistake to conclude, more broadly, that America’s cultural problems reside exclusively within the lower socioeconomic tiers. The achievers in today’s society may have gotten where they are, in part, through their own intelligence, hustle and grit. But by its nature, meritocracy instills in its winners the idea that they are entirely responsible for their success, and owe no obligation to their community or society. These sentiments are in abundant evidence today, particularly at the very top of the economy.  And they are pernicious.  They will make the solution to the problems that divide us all the more difficult to solve in the coming years.

Comments
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I have the good fortune to work in an industry that allows me to work with a lot of successful people. Many of these people happen to be immigrants or the children of immigrants. It is clear to me that America is still a land of opportunity and no group understands that better than America’s immigrants.

Too bad the media spends so much time talking about the problem and so little time reporting on the successes and how those successes were achieved.

Posted by Lloyd_L | Report as abusive
 

Much of the commentary about eg. decline in men’s wages since 1969 posits that period as the norm and the present as a departure from that norm. That really is not the case. All of these references are to a unique, never to be repeated era – the unprecedented post- WW II US economic expansion. Prior to WW II the majority of Americans were what we today would call the working poor or in poverty. The rest of the world caught up after the US was the only industrial country left standing – and we are now a generation past that.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive
 

Don,

Your industry must bear some of the blame. The inaccuracies and just plain untrue information pushed forward by media giants owned by corporations is appalling. It’s clearly an attempt to misinform and control the lower classes. You kow tow to the advertisers, who insist you mislead so that commerce can continue unabated. Indeed, many times it’s obvious that your industry incites fear and promotes irrationality, with the intent of causing consumption of irrational unnecessary items. You get them to spend stupidly and thus they and their children have decreased resources to apply to their education and cultural experience.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive
 

First, thanks to Reuters for this excellent series and to Mr. Peck for such an articulate rendering of this one aspect of the sorry state of our society.

Lloyd_L, I’d be cautious about making too many generalizations based on your experiences. You have anecdotal evidence that immigrants work hard and achieve success. How many work just as hard and achieve poverty? Hard work may be necessary, but is clearly not sufficient, to guarantee success. Luck is critical as well.

I can’t imagine how you could think that the media spends too much time talking about income inequality. Until the Occupy movement brought it up, it has gone unmentioned even while it has taken out the lower and now the middle rungs of the middle class. Perhaps you are not much crossing the divide that Mr. Peck discusses?

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive
 

“…intergenerational mobility in modern America is actually lower than it is in Europe, notwithstanding America’s reputation as the land of opportunity.” Rubbish!

Non-English speaking Vietnamese came into this country in droves with the fall of Saigon. They and their children have succeeded wherever they settled, understanding “opportunity” much better than America’s own native-born “underclass”. The fault of “inequality” is NOT with America…it is with SOME “Americans”.

The “…educational and developmental obstacles facing working and middle-class children…” arise largely FROM interaction and mutual reinforcement of “…economic inequality and cultural bifurcation.” Many such kids consciously choose to associate with kids of the “underclass”, adopting their values and culture to such extent as they can.

The resulting “divides” ARE more and more unbridgeable when young people consciously choose the mind set and attitudes traditionally associated with failure over those traditionally associated with success. I don’t want to wonder about the hygene of medical assistants, salespeople, waiters and waitresses, cashiers, or those in food preparation covered with tattoos, multiple body piercings; so I don’t patronize places that hire them.

We EACH have freedom of “choice”, but some choices have greater consequences than others. You err when you equate “well-educated” Americans and “economically successful Americans”. America’s cultural problems do NOT reside exclusively within the lower socioeconomic tiers, but, by and large, they do arise out of that “mind set”.

Many, many small businesses are founded and successfully operated by individuals who did not complete high school are one and the same. They aren’t. America is still primarily a meritocracy. “Average” is the line separating “above average” achievers from below average achievers. Or we could apply the terms “winners” and losers”. In life, everyone doesn’t get a trophy!

“We, the people” have always promised an equal opportunity to grab the “golden ring”. We have not always delivered on this promise, but we “deliver” on it better today than ever before. And yes, we can and should do “better” in the future.

But if we conscript our “winners” and sentence them to “community service” helping those who have no place in our society we divert and deplete the essential vitality of America’s “engine of economic prosperity”. Whenever that slows down or stops, very little else matters.

Far better to let those who wish to do this find their own way to do it. No society can guarantee success to those fundamentally unsuited to it…they can not and will not sustain that which is not earned. How do I know this? Look at public housing as an excellent example!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Oops!

My fourth and fifth paragraphs wound up an unintended jumble of thoughts. Sorry. Here’s a better arrangement of those thoughts:

Many, many small businesses are founded and successfully operated by individuals who did not complete high school.
We EACH have freedom of “choice”, but some choices have greater consequences than others. You err when you suggest “well-educated” Americans and “economically successful Americans” as being one and the same. Not always.

America’s cultural problems do NOT reside exclusively within the lower socioeconomic tiers, but, by and large, they do arise out of that “mind set”. America is still primarily a meritocracy. “Average” is the line separating “above average” achievers from below average achievers. Or we could apply the terms “winners” and losers”. In life, everyone doesn’t get a trophy!”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

We seem to be missing the point here. It is not whether opportunity exists. It exists everywhere to a greater or lesser degree. And not whether industrious Asians or Indians succeed where others do not. Nor is it a question of winners or losers. It is about how we value people and why some countries have been able to practically eradicate poverty, while we Americans find it easier to blame the poor for being poor. It seems to me that we could set our sights a little higher.

Posted by Glennn | Report as abusive
 

@ Glennn,

So “we, the people” should “value” people that are economically without value? If you “value” a society of failure, that’s a wonderful recipe with which to build one.

Those “…countries…able to practically eliminate poverty…” in Europe have increasingly porous borders and will rapidly find themselves inundated with “people” without education and skills that don’t speak the language. They, too, will “face the hard choices”.

Anyone “poor” having kid after kid that they know they can’t feed and that will have no land, no education, no inheritance, no skills and no prospects for productive employment is beyond stupid. The world’s available resources are already inadequate for the SEVEN BILLION here (and counting)!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Mr Sheep, Social Darwinism went out with the Victorians! You have confused money with people, like an Industrial Revolution era Calvinist. The poor do not choose poverty, who would do that? How do you know what it would be like to be raised in abject poverty and denied an education or basic opportunities? Although I’ve seen young people embrace ghetto-inspired music, this is not the same as deciding to be poor. How is it different from an older generation’s embracing of jazz? You have invented a cartoon view of poverty. The Calvinist idea that the poor deserve to be poor is ideological claptrap invented to justify exploitation and salve the conscience of the rich.

Posted by franabulax | Report as abusive
 

@Sanity-Monger. You write “How many work just as hard and achieve poverty? Hard work may be necessary, but is clearly not sufficient, to guarantee success. Luck is critical as well.”

I was agreeing with you right up until your last sentence but that’s where we disagree. In fact, I think your last sentence proves my point. If the news media will spend more time profiling successful people and detailing how those people achieved their success, there wouldn’t be the misconception that success depends on luck.

My auto mechanic didn’t graduate from high school but owns a nice shop, employs five people, owns some investment property and a nice home in one of the nicest areas of town. He also has four children who have graduated from college (three engineers and a school teacher) and plans to be debt free in less than five years.

Two brothers I know had over $50,000 saved in the bank by the time they were 22. They managed to do that working at jobs that paid about $10 per hour! They achieved this despite the fact that their father was murdered when they were young.

Most people don’t choose to live in poverty but live in poverty because of the choices they have made. It’s also true that one person’s path to success may not be appropriate for you but maybe someone else’s will. My message is that the news media should do in-depth profiles on successful people so that others can see and be inspired by the various paths to success that different people take.

Posted by Lloyd_L | Report as abusive
 

@franabulax,

White kids emulating ghetto kids in dress, mannerisms and lack of interest in academics in school have made a choice to be poor whether or not they know it. Same for the ghetto kids.

Dropping out of school before attaining a high school degree (when it is not necessary for your family to eat) is choosing to be poor (or certainly increasing the odds that you will be). Same for having a baby (or another) or fathering a child out of wedlock (or another) when you don’t know if you can feed yourself next week. Same for covering yourself with tattoos and body piercings in places not easily covered.

I do NOT “confuse money with people. I connect stupidity with “people”. Some “choices” have very serious long lasting consequences, whether conscious or not. Ever hear the expression “Ignorance is no excuse? It isn’t!

When one embraces jazz, or bebop, or in my case “Traditional Jazz” (or “Dixieland”), such eccentricity is essentially unconnected with where or how I work. It’s individual, it’s invisible, and it does not reflect adversely on my character, intelligence or motivation.

As a taxpayer (that ISN’T “rich”), I pay for schools to educate one and all. When “poor” OR “well off” kids don’t try to take advantage of the educational opportunities they have, they shoot themselves in the foot.

When they look to the lucky few with the talent to “make it” in sports or music it is no different than deciding your career is to play poker or gamble or sell drugs for a living or steal copper and sell it. Choices have consequences.

What we’re really discussing is the fact that life ain’t fair and some choices have consequences unwanted and unexpected. If you can’t read, or can’t make change for a dollar, who’s going to hire you and to do WHAT?

It doesn’t matter if you don’t know where babies come from if you “play the game”. Your life is changed in ways likely unexpected for the next eighteen years. You have to “suck it up” and serve as a bad example for others.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

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