The report’s authors “found” that “American families are becoming increasingly polarized along race, class and educational lines, according to a new report released Wednesday, a sign of growing economic inequality that was exacerbated by the Great Recession.” Additionally, scholars “found” that “men and women with high levels of education were more likely to be married…stay married,” had “fewer instances of cohabitation or divorce,” and that “their children were much less likely to live in poverty.”
“Found” is in quotation marks because the scholars did not “find” this information, per se. In fact, these phenomena are known, long-standing trends; moreover, they are common sense. Beyond this, Dr. Charles Murray, a political scientist, has written several notable books on these and related phenomena, including (all short titles) “The Bell Curve,” “Real Education,” “Losing Ground,” and “Coming Apart.”
While the “findings” of the OSU study and Murray’s work are essentially the same, their conclusions are inverted. The study’s scholars see income disparities as the cause of these maladies while Murray has concluded just the opposite.
Among the findings:
The report’s author, Dr. Zhenchao Qian, said, “I was struck by how strong the divide has become in terms of education. The gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the children who excel and who lag behind, grew larger than ever in the 2000s.” First of all, the haves and have-nots are not static groups. People generally do not spend their entire lives in the same income quintile; plus, when talking about income or wealth disparities, we are typically talking about people at different stages of their lives.
Still, this should come as no surprise. The haves tend to get and stay married, stay out of trouble, get educated, work full-time jobs, and have children only after the nuptials. Beyond that, Murray found that these people tend to marry one another, further reinforcing this culture in their children, who typically follow the same path to stability and success.
So Qian is correct, and would agree with Murray, about “Balkanized” families. Children born to college-educated, married, stable parents tend to turn out the same way. Likewise, children to born to single parents with spotty job histories and low levels of education tend to follow this path.
The authors even draw the conclusion. They found that “men and women with high levels of education were more likely to be married.” Such people also have lower rates of cohabitation, divorce, and poverty. So the key would be to follow a certain path, correct?
Not so. The authors write positively of the choices people now have, especially with regard family. “Divorce is no longer stigmatized. That diversity is here to stay.” So the diverse makeup of households is a good thing. One historian is even quoted in the Post article saying “there never has been a ‘typical’ American family,” which is simply not true. In the 1950s, more than 80% of blacks and 90% of whites lived in mom-dad-and-kids households. That is pretty typical. Still, the authors value this new-found freedom while lamenting stubborn social ills.
Unfortunately, people are using their freedom to make poor choices, although the authors do not see it this way. Instead, the source of the lower class’s problems is “constrained options.” That is, it’s not their fault.
Here is where their causation is backward. The authors seem to think that people are poor first, and then have difficulty finishing school, maintaining lasting marriages, and holding gainful employment. But this simply does not make sense. In fact, Murray demonstrated the opposite over his many volumes. The fact of the matter is that people who don’t finish school and have children out of wedlock are statistically less likely to get and stay married and earn higher incomes over their lives; so it is these choices that cause much of the poverty. Put another way, the “constrained options” are largely self-imposed.
A good example of this is the Asian-American community. We hear statistics on a regular basis about how blacks lag behind whites in this category and that category while hearing nothing about Asian-Americans, who, as a group, blow white people out of the water in terms of income and wealth. And guess what? They “[embrace] marriage; [eschew] divorce, cohabitation, and remarriage after divorce.” They also value education. The study even documents this phenomenon but fails to credit the cultural norms that lead to this success.
As for possible solutions, the study and Murray differ. The authors of the study advocate “public support for all America’s children, especially those who lag behind.” There it is: the expansion of the welfare state. On the face of it, the logic compelling—help the children because it’s not their fault. While compassionate, the welfare state inadvertently reinforces the behaviors and lifestyle that lead to poverty. Such children see reasonably easy and socially acceptable means to cope with imprudent behavior, thereby prolonging the cycle of poverty.
The scholars conclude in error, too: “While marriage promotion may encourage couples to marry and raise a family, it does not solve the deep-rooted economic hardship of the have-nots.” There are two key flaws with this statement. First, it assumes that technocrats can usher funding and programs here and there and solve society’s problems. “Now maybe the time to have government policies in place,” the authors write, “to help the needs of children growing up in disadvantaged families.” There are countless and redundant programs in existence to this very end and they do not solve the problem. History has shown this to be folly; after all, nearly 50 years after the advent of the War on Poverty, poverty remains.
Second, it seems clear that marriage before child-rearing is perhaps a silver bullet solution to many economic hardships. While society should have compassion for children born into disadvantaged situations, that is no reason not to promote marriage. Ultimately, however, no government policy can fix the problem. It is up to this generation of single parents and the other non-nuclear family households to instill in a generation of children wiser choices. Culture must change, not policy. If the government should act, it should offer only a safety net as a hand up, not a permanent provider, but it should also vigorously promote the behaviors of the haves.
They “have” for a reason, and it’s not a secret why.