Last week, I spoke to students at Grosse Pointe South High School in the suburbs of Detroit. This is the same place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic speech in March 1968, three weeks before he was assassinated. In his speech that day, King talked about "The Other America" and painted a grim portrait of the economic disparity that separated black America from white America.
Here are some of King's words from that day:
"The struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality."
A few weeks ago, we marked the 45th anniversary of King's death. Despite his call to action, more than four decades later, there is still a dividing line in America, and it's arguably deeper now than it was then. It's no longer about racism; though some of that undoubtedly still exists, it has largely been confronted and marginalized and is no longer acceptable in American society. But economic inequality has not been addressed and persists to this day. Depending on where you live and how much education you have, Americans increasingly live in two separate worlds.
The prominent sociologist and scholar Charles Murray has studied and written extensively on these two worlds and the growing divergence between them. He describes two fictional towns, one made up of college-educated professionals with very low rates of illegitimacy, crime and unemployment and the other where most have high-school educations and where single-parent homes are common. Though Murray's fictional towns are not far geographically, they are worlds apart in everything else, and the divergence continues. In terms of rates of marriage, single-parent homes, education levels, crime and participation in the workforce, these two towns are on completely different trajectories and creating a great rift in America.
Fifty years ago in America, there were rich and poor, of course, but the two largely ate the same things, watched the same sporting and cultural events, and understood each other. Murray points out that as these "towns" diverged, however, the cultures changed, as well. Today the foods we eat, the media we consume and the places in which we vacation are also diverging. It's a hardening socio-economic line -- a cultural separation -- that is dividing America. Murray observes that it is the residents of the wealthier towns who govern our country, set the rules, produce the movies and market the products. These wealthier towns dictate how both sides live. As Spike Lee recently said, Hollywood "doesn't understand black people," and it doesn't understand the residents of Murray's poor towns, either.
There has been much written about the growing wealth inequality in America. A recent Pew Research Center study found that the Great Recession accelerated the long trend of income and wealth disparity. To put it simply: The rich have gotten even richer over the past few years, and the poor have gotten even poorer. But perhaps even more troubling is that income mobility also is declining. The young residents of poorer towns once saw a path of education and hard work to get to the benefits enjoyed by those of more prosperous towns and financial independence and stability, but that path is disappearing. As the cost of education increases and the availability of well-paying "blue-collar" jobs dwindles, the gap between the two Americas grows. A generation ago, hardworking high-school graduates had options. There were jobs and careers and paths to economic independence and better lives. Those jobs are basically gone. The ones that remain don't offer as much of a wage or the benefits families need.
Whether in 1965 or 2013, a divided America will end up hurting us all. The economic achievers need the rest of America to be able to grow, earn good livings and contribute to the economy. We need to find common ground rooted in what made America the greatest country in world history.
I have long advocated policies that will create more economic dynamism and better prepare people to get better jobs, but that is only part of the solution. If America is to come back together, each of us must step up. As I said to the students at South last week, all of us must recommit ourselves to lives of service and sacrifice for those who have lost hope -- beginning in our own families but also in our schools, neighborhoods, churches, businesses and community organizations. And we must change our mindset that more taxes and more government benefits will repair this breach. This is not government-bashing. Hurting people are healed best by people who care about them -- who will serve them because they love them.
G.K. Chesterton was asked by a London magazine to write an essay titled "What's Wrong With the World?" Here is his submission: "Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton."
We, to whom much has been given, must do more personally for those with less, or we are in danger of leaving our children much less of a country.