Is There Still An American Dream?

Culture changes cause economic problems.

America used to maintain a cultural equality that was found nowhere else in the world.  In the 1830's, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people.  On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to them, they speak to them every day."

In early America, wealthy Americans and the less wealthy interacted on a daily basis.  This gave most people a set of shared values which became known as the "American way of life."

The "American way" was a set of cultural values centered around marriage, churchgoing, education, the idea that hard work ought to bring economic success, honesty, and a sense of individual responsibility  It was actually thought to be disgraceful to accept help from the government!

These ideas were shared across all economic classes, but the Wall Street Journal argues that this cultural consensus is breaking down.  Their analysis focuses on white persons to avoid having to correct for race.

They divided white people into a professional group whose members have at least a bachelor's degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or media content producer; and then a laboring group without a college degree who work at a blue-collar job.  The professionals are about 20% of the white population aged 30-49 and the workers are about 30%.  This age range was chosen as representing the prime earning years.

The Death of Working-Class Marriage

In 1960, 94% of the professionals and 84% of the workers were married.  That's not unexpected - in those bygone pre-womens'-lib days, most women were primarily concerned with finding husbands who could support them and were thus reluctant to marry lower-income men if at all avoidable.

By 2010, however, 83% of the professionals were married but only 48% of the workers.  Among non-college people, marriage declined 36%.

We see the same changes in the rate of extramarital births.

Though politicians and media eminences are too frightened to say so, nonmarital births are problematic. On just about any measure of development you can think of, children who are born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than children raised in intact families. This unwelcome reality persists even after controlling for the income and education of the parents.

In 1960, 2% of white births were non-marital.  By 2008, 6% of professional births were non-marital, a not-insignificant increase - but 44% of births were out of wedlock in the working group.  The fact that both groups were white shows that these changes in cultural values have nothing whatsoever to do with race.

The New York Times describes the disaster produced by non-marital births.  "Free-Market Socialism" discusses Maddie Parlier who was orphaned when her father ran his car into a tree.

Maddie is smart and hard-working. She did reasonably well in high school but got pregnant her senior year.

She and the father of her child split up, which put the kibosh on her college dreams because she couldn’t afford day care. She temped for a while. Her work ethic got her noticed, and she got a job as an unskilled laborer at Standard Motor Products, which makes fuel injectors.

Hard work and hustle have taken Maddie a long way, but she's hit a wall:

She doesn’t know the computer language that runs the machines. She doesn’t know trigonometry or calculus, and she’s never studied the properties of cutting tools or metals. She doesn’t know how to maintain a tolerance of 0.25 microns, or what tolerance means in this context, or what a micron is.

It's been known for a long time that getting pregnant while in high school virtually guarantees that a girl will live in poverty, and that her children will never achieve their potential either.  The Times' solution is more government support for day care so that Maddie can afford to go back to school, ignoring the fact that public schools in her neighborhood aren't able to teach anyone much of anything.

The Required Cultural Change

As one would expect, the Journal states the problem differently.   They are far less confident in good outcomes from government-based social engineering:

The economic value of brains in the marketplace will continue to increase no matter what, and the most successful of each generation will tend to marry each other no matter what. As a result, the most successful Americans will continue to trend toward consolidation and isolation as a class. Changes in marginal tax rates on the wealthy won't make a difference. Increasing scholarships for working-class children won't make a difference.

The only thing that can make a difference is the recognition among Americans of all classes that a problem of cultural inequality exists and that something has to be done about it. That "something" has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.

The Democrats are focusing on hammering productive people because "the rich" don't pay enough taxes.  Getting more money out of the rich, assuming that they can actually do it without driving all the money out of the US, won't help put damaged neighborhoods back together.  As the Times put it:

This [taxing the rich] makes you feel better if you detest all the greed-heads who went into finance. It does nothing to address those social factors, like family breakdown, that help explain why American skills have not kept up with technological change.

Republicans harp on cutting regulations to encourage job creation, but even if factory jobs move back to the US, people like Maddie will remain locked out of the higher-paying knowledge-based jobs.  Even if factories came back, where would they find enough educated workers?

But lighter regulation and lower taxes won’t, on their own, help the Maddie Parliers of the world get the skills they need to compete.

The Journal advocates a cultural solution to what they regard as a cultural problem:

Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn't hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.

It won't be easy to convince people that having fatherless babies is, in and of itself, a bad idea or to convince young men that they really ought to find work no matter how lowly.  Sen. Moynihan was vilified by liberals for "blaming the victim" when he pointed out that non-marital births were destroying the black community. Bill Cosby attracted similar criticism for saying essentially the same thing.

Public policy has a lot to do with the problem.  Women are less worried about getting married because they can go on welfare once they have a baby.  Other government programs reduce the necessity for work.  In fact, it's been calculated that a welfare family whose head works a part-time minimum-wage job for a total of one week per month will have more disposable income than a family with a full-time breadwinner pulling down $60,000 - nearly twice the national average salary.

If these programs aren't going to change, and very few politicians recognize the necessity of doing that, the only other possibilities are a change in cultural behavior as people notice the disastrous results of what we've been doing for the past 40 years or a complete collapse.  Which is more likely, change or collapse?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
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