An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Social problems’

Please History: Repeat Yourself!

History gives me hope for the present—maybe even for the future. Reading Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples recently, I learned that after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Europe enjoyed a lengthy peace.

Unfortunately, England squandered this opportunity to surge ahead in trade and manufacturing—and to promote the well-being of the working class. The Tory government was controlled by landed aristocrats whose aim was to protect the status quo—land and property rights. Government officials had little knowledge of industry and technology and no understanding of the poverty and squalor in which ill-paid factory workers and their families lived.

Britain’s economy was in deep trouble. The nation carried huge debt from their years of war. This was not helped when manufacturers succeeded in getting the income tax repealed—depriving the government of a large portion of  its revenue.

High food prices were caused by laws forbidding the import of foreign grains. Landowners benefitted from high food prices, but the middle class suffered and children of the working class often starved.

Whigs, the opposition party, had no plans for moving the country forward. Both parties feared uprisings driven by radicals who agitated for government reforms and better conditions for workers. Middle class voters supported a government which did not benefit them out of fear of radicals.

Except for the names and places, these problems sound familiar. The encouraging news is that Britain did not go down the tube 200 years ago. The ship of state managed to right itself politically and economically. Popular writers like Dickens and Thackeray stirred up public indignation over government corruption and the desperate squalor of the working class. Policies changed. Peaceful reforms were implemented. The country prospered and workers received a share.

With any luck, our country will overcome the current gridlock of polarization, and we will move forward for another century or two. Still, it would be comforting to have Charles Dickens around to point out the real issues.

A Great Inequality in the Land

In 3 Ne 6:10-14, the prophet Mormon attributes the downfall of the Nephite people to “a great inequality in all the land.”

In his 2012 book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray describes the increasing gap of values and lifestyle choices between the upper and lower classes in the US. As a Libertarian, Murray does not see the changes driven by economic inequality. See my take on his book here.

Decades of research have led sociologist Richard Wilkinson to the same conclusion as Mormon. Inequality rather than income make the difference in how well societies function. Check out his TED talk here.

Lesson from a Libertarian

“Why is your mom reading a libertarian book?” my son in law asked Lolly when he saw my copy of Charles Murray’s, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.

I knew Murray was a libertarian when I picked up his book, and I expected to find him advocating less government as the solution to the social problems he details in this book. Yet, very little of the book is devoted to his political philosophy. For the most part, Murray compares statistics on the lifestyle and attitudes of the upper-middle class and the former working class, which he calls the new lower class. The result is a comprehensive outline of our current class system and the social problems it promotes.

 Murray quotes surveys showing income for the upper 5% of Americans has soared while that of the working class has shrunk during the last half century. More worrisome than income inequality are the lower class’s steep decline in marriage, time spent working, and religious and community participation. Crime rates, arrests, and incarceration have sharply increased for this group.

Murray found that working class neighborhoods are losing the community cohesion they once had. Statistically, men in this group work less than they did 50 years ago, but participation in community organizations such as coaching a Little League team, as well as church participation, is way down.

Most troubling is documentation of family disintegration. The huge increase in working-age men who work part time or not at all—even during the economic boom of the 1990s. And what are the nonworking men doing with their time? According to surveys, they sleep and watch TV. How do these men live without working? Women pick up the slack. Single moms support the kids—and often a boy friend. These statistics make me wonder how much the sexual revolution really benefitted women.

Being a libertarian, Murray does suggest that freedom for individuals to fail without government guarantees of food and medical care for their families would motivate men to marry and to get and keep jobs. I find this solution problematic. Granted, government programs to provide the necessities of life to children can facilitate laziness and irresponsibility among some parents—but how do we allow children to suffer for the sins of their parents?

I don’t pretend to know all the factors involved with the breakdown of families. The social acceptability of divorce and illegitimacy obviously playa role, but do we really want to go back to stigmatizing the victims of unfortunate situations?

I can’t help wondering if the stagnant wages for the working class, combined with huge increases for the upper 5%, is a factor. From the time Jamestown was settled, the American dream has been to work hard and secure a better future for our children. For many in the bottom 30%, a better future for their children no longer looks possible. In fact, most of them aren’t living as well as their parents.

Even gifted students in this income group have little chance of being admitted to one of the top universities—the gateway to big money jobs. Educational opportunities for children born into the new lower class are in no way equal to those for kids born in the upper middle class, let alone the top 5%. Even tuition for average and mediocre colleges leaves many students in debt they will struggle to repay for years. If the only job an undereducated man of average IQ can get is in the service industry at minimum wage and no benefits, no wonder he’s not interested in marrying and trying to support a a family.

I read through the book, hoping Murray had a brilliant solution to the problems he details. He does not. But he does show us what the problems are. And I do wish the political discussions this year would focus on serious issues and meaningful ways to resolve them rather than name-calling and blame.

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