John C. Goodman

We are experiencing an ever widening cultural divide, according to Charles Murray.

Upper-middle class professional types may pretend that they are cultural relativists, accepting of whatever lifestyle their fellow human beings happen to choose. In reality, they live by old fashioned puritan values, however. They get married and stay married. They work hard and work long hours.

Not so for the blue collar, never-got-beyond-high-school class, however. A shocking number aren't even working at all. Many are not getting married in the first place. Of those that get married, the divorce and separation rates are soaring.

What about happiness and well-being? About 65% of the upper middle class professional types say they are in happy marriages. That number has been dropping steadily for the past 40 years for the working class types; and today it stands at 25%!

Murray, by the way, is the author of Losing Ground, the book generally credited with sparking welfare reform in the United States, and The Bell Curve, the book that generated a national debate on the role of IQ in our society. When he speaks, people on both the right and the left tend to listen. His latest book, Coming Apart, is another block buster.

Just so you don't think what Murray is describing is all about race or about immigrants, the entire analysis in it is focused on non-Hispanic whites. Within the white population a cultural cataclysm is underway. One part of that population (about 20% of the total) is firmly attached to traditional values. The other part (about 30% of the total) is undergoing cultural disintegration.

In 1960, these two groups of people lived similar lives. Today, they are headed in opposite directions.

Take divorce. Between 1960 and 1980, Murray shows that working class whites' divorce/separation rate rose from about 5% to about 15%. Over the next 20 years it more than doubled again, rising from 15% to 35%. The professional class also saw an increase in the divorce rate rise between 1960 and 1980: from about 1% to about 7.5% between 1960 and 1980. But it then completely leveled off: the professional class divorce/separation rate has been flat for the last thirty years. The same pattern holds for children growing up in broken homes. There has been a steady increase for the working class and a low plateau for the professional class.

What about work? In 1968, only 3% of prime age males with no more than a high school education were "out of the labor force." By 2008, that figure climbed to 12% — almost one in eight. Meanwhile, little has changed among males with a college education.

Part-time work is another indicator of the decline of industriousness among the working class. Among prime age males with no more than a high school education, the fraction working fewer than 40 hours a week doubled — from 10% in 1968 to 20% in 2008. Among the college graduates, the rise was much smaller: from 9% to 12%.

Writing in The New York Times the other day, David Brooks noted that the key ingredient in the cultural disintegration of working class life style is the role of men:

Tens of millions of men have marred life chances because schools are bad at educating boys, because they are not enmeshed in the long-term relationships that instill good habits and because insecure men do stupid and self-destructive things.

Over the past 40 years, women's wages have risen sharply but, as Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project point out, median incomes of men have dropped 28 percent and male labor force participation rates are down 16 percent. Next time somebody talks to you about wage stagnation, have them break it down by sex. It's not only globalization and technological change causing this stagnation. It's the deterioration of the moral and social landscape, especially for men.

Religious beliefs are changing too. Secularism rose 11 percentage points (from 29% to 40%) for the upper middle class, but rose 21 percentage points (from 38% to 59%) for the working class.

What about cause and effect? It should be obvious that culture affects economic outcomes, but some on the left think it's the other way around. Here's an amazing statement by Paul Krugman writing in The New York Times:


Traditional values aren't as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America's working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.


As usual, Krugman has it completely wrong. When Charles Murray was in Dallas the other day I suggested to him that culture is like the economists' notion of a "public good." We all benefit from it, even if we personally do nothing to create it, nurture it, or defend it. But if the institutions that sustain a culture are weak and eroding, then the culture itself will disappear and everyone will be affected by that change.

What is happening in working class America is the disintegration of the American way of life.

John C. Goodman

John C. Goodman is Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute and author of the widely acclaimed book, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis. The Wall Street Journal and National Journal, among other media, have called him the "Father of Health Savings Accounts."