Acton Institute Powerblog

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

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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.

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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).

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