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January 26, 2012

America's Lost Common Culture

Maetenloch linked this in the ONT last night. It seems like it should be discussed by people who aren't drunk.

He sets up two hypothetical towns -- "Belmont," upper middle class, and "Fishtown," working class; both are mostly white -- and uses thej to illustrate data from the latest General Social Survey.

In Belmont and Fishtown, here's what happened to America's common culture between 1960 and 2010.

Marriage: In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites in both Belmont and Fishtown were married—94% in Belmont and 84% in Fishtown. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in both places. Then came the great divergence. In Belmont, marriage stabilized during the mid-1980s, standing at 83% in 2010. In Fishtown, however, marriage continued to slide; as of 2010, a minority (just 48%) were married. The gap in marriage between Belmont and Fishtown grew to 35 percentage points, from just 10.

Single parenthood: Another aspect of marriage—the percentage of children born to unmarried women—showed just as great a divergence. Though politicians and media eminences are too frightened to say so, nonmarital births are problematic. On just about any measure of development you can think of, children who are born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than children raised in intact families. This unwelcome reality persists even after controlling for the income and education of the parents.

In 1960, just 2% of all white births were nonmarital. When we first started recording the education level of mothers in 1970, 6% of births to white women with no more than a high-school education—women, that is, with a Fishtown education—were out of wedlock. By 2008, 44% were nonmarital. Among the college-educated women of Belmont, less than 6% of all births were out of wedlock as of 2008, up from 1% in 1970.

Industriousness: The norms for work and women were revolutionized after 1960, but the norm for men putatively has remained the same: Healthy men are supposed to work. In practice, though, that norm has eroded everywhere. In Fishtown, the change has been drastic. (To avoid conflating this phenomenon with the latest recession, I use data collected in March 2008 as the end point for the trends.)

The primary indicator of the erosion of industriousness in the working class is the increase of prime-age males with no more than a high school education who say they are not available for work—they are "out of the labor force." That percentage went from a low of 3% in 1968 to 12% in 2008. Twelve percent may not sound like much until you think about the men we're talking about: in the prime of their working lives, their 30s and 40s, when, according to hallowed American tradition, every American man is working or looking for work. Almost one out of eight now aren't. Meanwhile, not much has changed among males with college educations. Only 3% were out of the labor force in 2008.

There's also been a notable change in the rates of less-than-full-time work. Of the men in Fishtown who had jobs, 10% worked fewer than 40 hours a week in 1960, a figure that grew to 20% by 2008. In Belmont, the number rose from 9% in 1960 to 12% in 2008.

I'm skipping the part on crime; see it at the link.

This is surprising. Those who bitterly cling to their religion ain't who the media thinks:

Religiosity: Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that Fishtown has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.

For example, suppose we define "de facto secular" as someone who either professes no religion at all or who attends a worship service no more than once a year. For the early GSS surveys conducted from 1972 to 1976, 29% of Belmont and 38% of Fishtown fell into that category. Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow in Belmont, from 29% in the 1970s to 40% in the GSS surveys taken from 2006 to 2010. But it grew even more in Fishtown, from 38% to 59%.

These numbers don't match The Narrative, which may be why the media was so utterly befuddled when reporting on the Tea Party. First thing out of the gate, they tried to report them as being Very Religious and, of course, Quite Poor and Uneducated.

Then they realized the Tea Party was actually wealthier than the mean, and began reporting on them being arch-plutocrats. Oddly, at this point, they dropped the "Very Religious" meme, I guess because It Did Not Compute that someone could be pretty wealthy and pretty religious.

Basically they just started to babble. On a dime they went from "Poor Jesus-Trash, let's mock them" to "Rich people, let's mock them."

I'm a little confused by the article, because it seems like he begins starting with an indictment of the New Upper Class (which he seems to scorn), implying that they've lost touch with the Working Class. But then he shifts, it seems, to a Upper Middle Class which he contrasts favorably with the Working Class.

Given the data points he cites, I'm not sure he can make the case the starts out making -- after all, if "Belmont" produces so many better outcomes, culturally, than "Fishtown," why would someone want to keep touch with the habits and practices of "Fishtown"? Seems like the more important question is "How do we get 'Fishtown' to take notice of the habits of 'Belmont'?"

Or is he actually saying that the true Upper Class is the most religious, and the Working Class much more secular?

Maybe it's just that the data won't support the typical screed about an out-of-touch elite or whatever but he tries to hammer the numbers into compliance. I'm not sure. But given his data, while I was all set to read a "Let's mock people who watch Mad Men" (even though I've seen the show myself) it's really, ultimately, "Hey, shouldn't people who aren't watching Mad Men try to change so they'd be the sort of people who would watch Mad Men"?

There's an old saw that goes thus: The Middle Class does most of the stuff they're supposed to do, because they are socially mobile, in both directions. Their status could rise; their status could also fall. They are then insecure in their position, which is a good thing, as it keeps them on the ball.

The elite class can afford to indulge themselves a bit, because seriously, they'd have to really try super-hard to fall into poverty. At worse they'd fall down a few pegs in the social ladder, and they've got a lot of cushion there.

But the true lower class -- not the striving class, but the lower class that doesn't hope for much improvement, and self-identifies as lower class and proud of it -- also mimics the bad indulgences of the elites, for similar but different reasons: They think they can't really fall too much farther (being near the bottom), and also doubt their ability to rise much, so it really doesn't matter all that much.

But of course it does; a steady salary of $35,000 per year is a lot different than a salary of $20,000 per year.

Thus the old conservative saw that at the top and bottom of society, you find similar moral habits; but those at the top can afford the high costs of their indulgences, whereas those on the bottom -- and especially their children -- cannot.

Interesting food for thought. The data wound up going in places I didn't expect. I am chastened to find I've bought into The Narrative myself. But despite all the rhetoric about the virtuous and industrious non-elites, it turns out that it is, in fact, probably better to be more elite.

Which I guess should have been obvious, even absent the numbers.

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posted by Ace at 12:01 PM

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