The Magazine

Mind the Gap

The rich get richer and the poor are broken.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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he formation of a “new upper class” amounts to a kind of geographic sorting, by which people with extremely high levels of education and wealth increasingly live near one another. They are forming an isolated and cohesive subculture of high achievement and bourgeois virtues, and they have very little exposure to the everyday lives of people who are not similarly high achievers or earners. In the America that these elites inhabit, the virtues of marriage, religion, work, and lawfulness have declined some since the 1960s, though generally not precipitously—and in some respects they have begun to make a comeback. But our elites do not have the kind of cultural self-confidence that Americans once had. They live these virtues but are not inclined to preach them.

The formation of the “new lower class,” meanwhile, amounts to nothing short of a cataclysmic cultural disintegration. Among this group, the family is falling apart—with marriage rates for people between ages 30 and 50 plummeting from 84 percent in 1960 to 48 percent today, and only 37 percent of children living with both of their biological parents. Religious practice and belief are sharply declining: About 4 percent of Americans in Murray’s lower class reported having no religion in the early 1970s; today the proportion is greater than 20 percent. Industriousness is falling, especially among men: The share of lower-class households with a full-time worker dropped from 81 percent to 60 percent in the past half-century, while the number of men claiming to be disabled and unable to work has grown fivefold. Lawfulness has plummeted: Crime rates among this group exploded between 1960 and 1990, and although they have since declined some, much of that decline appears to have been caused by far higher incarceration rates, which hardly constitutes a sustainable solution.

The basic institutions of society in lower-class neighborhoods are increasingly falling apart, and a mounting intergenerational cultural breakdown is under way.

These two sets of changes in American life are hardly parallel or equivalent, and Murray’s assertion that “the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the lower class is in its way” seems completely at odds with the data he presents. He appears at times to imply that it is the fact that Americans at the top and the bottom are living differently that poses the greatest problem, rather than that the lives of those at the bottom are increasingly disordered and broken. At the very least, he does not clearly show whether or how the trends at the top are driving those at the bottom.

In this sense, Murray’s book suffers from a flaw that bears some similarity to the one that renders the liberal case regarding inequality largely incoherent. That case seeks to blame the wealthy for the growing gap between the top and bottom, and in the process, treats the gap itself as the core problem when, in fact, it is the stagnation and decline at the bottom that should worry us most—and the wealthy appear to have little directly to do with that worrisome trend. Thus, for instance, we routinely find Paul Krugman ranting about the “plutocrats” responsible for working-class wage stagnation but unable to articulate the mechanism by which these supposed villains actually work their mischief. A similar confusion is at work behind President Obama’s recent turn to populism.

For Krugman and Obama, this incoherence helps to mask the painful reality that a key factor behind the collapse of poor and working-class life in America has been precisely the liberal welfare state they hold up as a solution—a welfare state originally constructed on misguided moral premises, which has badly undermined the social institutions essential to human thriving in poor communities, and which now remains as a moldering relic growing increasingly bloated, inefficient, and regressive. The left’s cynical (or else pitiful) disavowal of this fact explains a great deal of its present obsession with inequality.

Murray, of course, suffers from no such self-delusion. He plainly sees how much the welfare state has contributed to the ruin of lower-class life. And he also understands, unlike Krugman or Obama, that the key problems faced by the poor today are fundamentally cultural (and therefore also moral), not simply economic.

Knowing that poorly designed welfare state institutions contributed mightily to these cultural problems does not solve them, however, and while the reform (greatly aided by Murray’s own work) of one especially counterproductive welfare program in the 1990s may have helped to slow the bleeding, it has hardly stopped it. Murray makes no claim to know just what could do so, but he does suggest that America’s elites could help a lot by offering a moral argument for their own way of life: By preaching what they practice, and therefore helping to link the traditional American virtues to examples of lived success.