Inequality’s pernicious twin is our growing cultural divide
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.