Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Economics Can’t Explain the Problems of the New Lower Class

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

If only we would use public policy to generate working-class jobs at good wages, some progressives argue, the problems of the new lower class would fade away. But as social scientist Charles Murray explains, there are two problems with this line of argument:

The purported causes don’t explain the effects, and whether they really were the causes doesn’t make much difference anyway.

Start with the prevalent belief that the labor market affected marriage because of the disappearance of the “family wage” that enabled a working-class man to support a family in my base line year of 1960.

It is true that unionized jobs at the major manufacturers provided generous wages in 1960. But they didn’t drive the overall wage level in the working class. In the 1960 census, the mean annual earnings of white males ages 30 to 49 who were in working-class occupations (expressed in 2010 dollars) was $33,302. In 2010, the parallel figure from the Current Population Survey was $36,966—more than $3,000 higher than the 1960 mean, using the identical definition of working-class occupations.

[. . .]

If the pay level in 1960 represented a family wage, there was still a family wage in 2010. And yet, just 48% of working-class whites ages 30 to 49 were married in 2010, down from 84% in 1960.

But if changes in the labor market don’t explain the development of the new lower class, what does? Murray blames our growing welfare state and the perverse incentives that it created:

Simplifying somewhat, here’s my reading of the relevant causes: Whether because of support from the state or earned income, women became much better able to support a child without a husband over the period of 1960 to 2010. As women needed men less, the social status that working-class men enjoyed if they supported families began to disappear. The sexual revolution exacerbated the situation, making it easy for men to get sex without bothering to get married. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that male fecklessness bloomed, especially in the working class.

Murray’s solution to the problem:

To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don’t call them “demoralized.” Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer. Equally important: Start treating the men who aren’t feckless with respect. Recognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor’s college-educated son who won’t take a “demeaning” job. Be willing to say so.

While it likely wouldn’t solve the problem, Murray’s suggestion is an easy step in the right direction.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Jeff Y.

    Both Murray and Carter focus too much on men. The problem isn’t men. The problems originate mainly with women.

    It’s WOMEN who devalue hard-working, responsible men. Carter quotes Murray on the matter. Changing male attitudes towards other males will not change anything. Women have to change.

    It’s WOMEN who are most responsible for getting pregnant out of wedlock. It’s Their body. The law gives them sole custody of children (by and large), so it’s their baby. The daddy is only a paycheck. There is a huge state apparatus that ensures men pay child support. There is no state apparatus to ensure women don’t birth children they can’t support. If a woman is stupid enough to have a child with a man who won’t marry her (better yet, whom she has already married!), and she can[t support the child herself – she’s irresponsible and unfit for motherhood. The state would take her child and put it up for adoption to more responsible mothers. This will end the economic incentives that lead women to have children they can’t support.

    Carter and Murray suffer form the White Knight Syndrome. They view women as virginal, helpless, morally inferior creatures.

    This is wrong. The sexual revolution was instigated, carried through, and is still supported by WOMEN. By and large, women prefer scoundrels to responsible men. This is a fact everyone knows, who’s got through high school.

    But if you grew up in fantasy-land (if you did, stop telling us what to do out here), there’s tons and tons of research into the female preference for rakish scoundrels and female hypergamy. Give Professor Peter Jonason’s book, Dark Triad. It has a good bibliography.

    Women are the main problem. Focusing on men won’t get you anywhere. You tell that young man that he’s morally inferior to the lawn-care guy. He’ll look at his stable of willing, female sexual partners – and laugh at you. He’s getting laid ten tomes more than the responsible, lawn-guy. He gets ten times more respect from women than the lawn-care guy.

    Carter, the ugly facts of female hypergamy crush your pretty White Knight illusions. You should start lecturing your daughter, before you start lecturing your son. But White Knights usually can’t do that. They can’t tell women the truth.

    Look at teen romance novels. Seriously. They’re one of the largest markets. It’s all about irresponsible women mating with jerks. And women flock and swoon to it.

    I know I’m being harsh. I know it may be rhetorically unsound. Readers might discount what I’m saying. But you guys need shock treatment and pronto. You’re lying about or ignoring the nature of women, which nature the pre-moderns understood quite well.


    • RogerMcKinney

       Seems to me it takes two.

      •  … to tango.

        Jeff Y. gives the girls way too much credit. He says not a word about the man’s shared responsibility.

        Ever met a good woman, Jeff?

        • Jeff Y.

          Well, my reply to RogerMcKinney Awaits moderation. But your comment follows the usual White Knight pattern.

          “Jeff Y. gives the girls way too much credit.”

          Tactic: Assume facts not in evidence, namely the moral inferiority of women.

          “He says not a word about the man’s shared responsibility.”

          Tactic: Poison the well with inaccurate hyperbole.

          Actually, I do talk about men’s responsiblities. I wrote about the gigantic government bureaucracy that enforces men’s responsibilities. My point is that men have vastly more responsibilities and vastly fewer rights. This create perverse incentives for women.

          “Ever met a good woman, Jeff?”

          Tactic: use the complex question as an abusive ad hominem.

          Unfortunately, this is usually the best the White Knight has to offer.

          Should I explain the best arguments against my claims? I can do that much better than you have, sir.

          •  Jeff:

            When you took “Principles of Rhetoric” what did they call this gambit?

            “Carter and Murray suffer form the White Knight Syndrome. They view women as virginal, helpless, morally inferior creatures.”

            and here:

            “You should start lecturing your daughter, before you start lecturing your son.”

            You are out of line.

          • Jeff Younger

            I took the gambit from Murray and Carter.

            Murray wrote: “Call them [feckless young men] whatever derogatory word you prefer.”

            Carter wrote: “[…] Murray’s suggestion is an easy step in the right direction.”

            They played the shame gambit, not me.

            I’m just turning the shame where it properly belongs: on women more than men.

            I’m not out of line; I’m telling the truth.

        • EmmaJohnson

          I guess I’m curious what the real truth is… are men useless to women (i.e. fish & bicycles)?  All this talk about asking men to “man up”, it basically amounts to telling men to get jobs so they will be marriage material because this is what women want. 

          Men can see that they are viewed as walking wallets who are completely useless otherwise.  You can shame them all you want, but men aren’t going to accept a no-win social contract.  The rules have changed, women made those rule changes happen, and men are simply reacting to the new rules.

          • Roger McKinney

             Men have much to offer in addition to a pay check, but without a pay check all the other stuff becomes worthless. It’s a package. All or nothing.

    • Gone Galt

      I’m afraid these tepid, nonsensical comments are about the best you’ll see. The White Knight has no sound argument against the plain truth you spoke there. You are right on the money, and more importantly, your claims are fully backed by numerous scientific research studies (not gonna provide footnotes but any interested party can use google).
      I don’t see any argument at all against what you wrote in these comments, just confusing babble. 

      Women are indeed the problem, because female mate selection drives marriage and family, and determines a great deal of male behavior due to the natural competition for mating rights with high quality females. By and large, modern western women who are attractive are spending most or all of their prime marriage and fertility years chasing frequent anonymous sex with “bad boys” in their post-college big city playgrounds. They are eschewing marriage and childbirth until well after their prime years, hoping to have the best of all worlds, and saddle a “beta provider” to take care of them from their mid-thirties onward (often with bastard children from their “fun years” in tow). Sensible men took a look at that deal and said no thank you.

      These facts are irrefutable, so why are the authors ignoring them – that is the biggest question.

      • Gone Galt

        One must also consider the incredibly high divorce rate, along with the one-sided financial and emotional penalties against men when their children and homes are confiscated. Women initiate between 60 and 80% percent of divorces, depending on what study you are looking at and what region. When alimony is awarded, it goes from men to women in 97% of all cases. If you choose to avoid these pitfalls by avoiding marriage and children, you are still taxed at a confiscatory rate, the more you make, in order to pay for the actions of the irresponsible (largely women). Smart, industrious men are completely disincentivized from following the traditional western program of working hard and starting a family.

        Again, the smartest among us desirable bachelors have become well aware of these death traps, and are scrupulously avoiding them. Don’t confuse that with being feckless, and don’t be envious. Join the party.


  • Micha_Elyi

    Thank you Jeff Y. for your further explication of your diagnosis and prescription.

    You have put your critics (and the badly-behaving females they coddle and make excuses for) to shame.

  • Micha_Elyi

    Because women consume more media than men and women control around 85% of all consumer purchasing decisions from groceries to luxuries, regardless of the source of the money they’re spending whether it be a husband, a government that sucks off of men generally, or her government-supported hobby job.

    The media isn’t going to make their source of eyeballs they’re selling to advertisers fee-yul baa-ad.  It’s bad for business.

    And I’ll bet that most of the cash sent in to EWTN is steered there primarily by females too, judging by the pandering-to-females and man-bashing attitudes of Mother Angelica and her cast of players.

  • Collective

    Written like a true champ.