An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Socio-economic classes’

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.

Socio-economic Shake-up

A teacher friend told me the junior high in an older neighborhood of our suburban town has slipped from top spot in the district. When enrollment declined due to an aging population, students from a newer, less expensive housing development were bussed in. Many homes in the new development have been foreclosed and are being bought by families from Salt Lake City’s lower income neighborhoods. The junior high in the privileged neighborhood must now contend with a substantial increase in fights, thefts, drugs, and gang issues.

My immediate response, I’m ashamed to say, was fear. What if “these people” move into my neighborhood and lower the value of my house? It’s easy to believe that minorities and other lower income people should have the opportunity to move into better neighborhoods where their children can attend good schools—until it’s our neighborhood they move into.

For six decades, middle-class whites have responded to this situation by moving to ever more distant suburbs. This option has closed for many young families. Laden with huge student loans, and faced with the reality of an economy not providing jobs with adequate salary and affordable health care insurance, many young couples cannot afford the segregated, middle-class neighborhoods of their parents.

This may not be entirely a negative. In the past Americans did not isolate themselves by economic status as religiously as we do now. Schools in small towns today have more diverse populations than those in suburbs—and kids benefit from mixing with people outside their family’s small circle.  Part of the problem with failing schools in lower income neighborhoods is that resources are seldom divided equally. Administrators tend to allocate more funds to schools with actively involved parents—and to shuffle low-performing teachers into schools where parents don’t complain.

Regardless of who wins the next election, it’s unlikely the economy will bounce back to the boom of the ‘90s anytime soon. The middle-class lifestyle of their parents will continue to elude many young couples. A possible social benefit may be the improvement of lower-income schools and neighborhoods as these families insist on good schools, parks, community recreation, and law enforcement for the communities in which they can afford to live.

Minority and low income parents also want good schools and a healthy environment for their children, but most lack the skills to deal with local government. Educated residents of lower-income neighborhoods could make a positive difference.

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