Friday, December 7, 2012

The road to dystopia

Sometimes a chart is worth a thousand words. The above examples come from a long piece by Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal - The No Good, Very Bad Outlook for the Working-Class American Man. By "working class" think lesser-educated, lesser-skilled, mostly nonprofessional men for whom the American economy used to provide jobs that earned a wage adequate to supporting a family, and provided a realistic opportunity of climbing the social ladder. That economy and those jobs no longer exist. This article is a gripping and grim read. Rauch writes:

Begin with Chart 1. It shows one of the most basic of all economic relationships, that between productivity and hourly compensation. Productivity measures the value of the output (brake pads, stock transactions) a worker produces in, say, a day; compensation is a measure of earnings that includes the value of benefits such as health insurance. The chart also shows compensation for all U.S. workers and specifically for workers in production and nonsupervisory jobs—blue-collar and clerical jobs, for example.
For decades, productivity and compensation rose in tandem. Their bond was the basis of the social compact between the economy and the public: If you work harder and better, you and your family will be better off. But in the past few decades, and especially during the past 10 years or so, the lines have diverged. This is slippage No. 1: Productivity is rising handsomely, but compensation of workers isn’t keeping up.
True, compensation is still rising, on average. But the improvements are spotty. Production and nonsupervisory workers—factory, retail, and clerical workers, for example—saw productivity gains disappear from their paychecks much earlier and got hit harder than did supervisors and professionals. Over the past 30 years or so, their compensation has hardly risen at all.
“This is something that has been happening and building for years and is now really rooted in the economy, and it’s vicious,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington. “There’s a remarkable disconnect. The problem isn’t a lack of the economy producing sufficient income to make everybody’s living standards improve—it’s that the economy is structured so that the majority don’t benefit.” Or, to state the point more cautiously, the majority doesn’t benefit from productivity gains very much—certainly, less than our parents and grandparents did.

The outcome of all of this is a generation or two of men in which alarmingly large numbers are disconnected from steady work, marriage and family. This leads to vicious cycles of community and family breakdown, the signs of which are all around us (unless you're one of the fortunate "up and out" who can insulate yourself from the real world). Another excerpt:

Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce—one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.

To women, men who either can’t or don’t earn a decent living are less necessary and desirable as mates; they’re just another mouth to feed. This helps to explain why rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth have risen to hitherto unimaginable heights among the less educated. Causality also flows in the opposite direction. The very fact of being married brings men a premium in their earnings, research shows, and makes them steadier workers, presumably because they have more stability at home. “Marriage is an institution that makes men more responsible in their pursuit of work and in their work-related duties,” said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project.

You can see where this leads. Nonwork makes men less marriageable; non-marriage makes men less employable; the cycle repeats. This is slippage No. 4: Low-earning men are decreasingly able to form stable families. That, in turn, harms their children and communities. “Social capital disintegrates as you have a combination of drop in participation in the labor force and the disintegration of marriage,” said Charles Murray, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Given the diverging economic destinies of men at the top and bottom of the education curves, you might expect such a self-reinforcing cycle to lead to something like a self-perpetuating class divide. You would be right. “If you look back 50 years ago, there were not major class divides in marriage or family structure,” Wilcox said. Today, as Chart 6 shows, marriage and earnings correlate strongly. In 1970, more than three-fourths of men, no matter how much they earned, had wives; men at the bottom of the earnings scale were only slightly more likely to be single than were men at the top. Today, nearly half of the low-earning men are single, versus only a seventh of highly paid men.

Family structure, in short, has become both a leading cause and a primary casualty of an emerging class divide. At the top are families with two married earners, two college degrees, and kids who never question that their future includes a college degree and a good job; at the bottom, families with one (female) earner, no college, no marriage, and kids who grow up isolated from the world of work and higher education. And the two worlds are drifting apart.

In response to this some would say that the trends described here are not real (or overstated). If that's your opinion I'd love to talk to you. Another response might be: "yes he's right, but who cares?" I can imagine those of a more liberal mindset saying: "Who cares if marriage is on the decline. Who cares if lower and middle-class two-parent families are in danger of extinction. Who needs marriage? Who needs men?!" Meanwhile, they cluster together in tony zip codes where their children reap the benefits of excellent schools and a stable home life.

Those conservatives who genuflect before the altars of capitalism and the global economy might say, "Too bad, but this is the market at work." After all, we dare not interfere in the workings of the "free market." If we have a generation of men roaming the streets untethered to jobs and families we'll build more prisons to house them. This has pretty much been the approach for several decades. And the vicious cycle continues.

If economic security was my highest aspiration for my two boys (it isn't, following Jesus is) I'd be tempted to despair. As it is I'm reasonably optimistic that things will get better in the long term. America has been remarkably resilient. Spielberg's movie on Lincoln reminds us that we've triumphed over bigger challenges. A silver lining in all this for the church in America is that we're going to have many more opportunities to model the countercultural upside down values of the Kingdom of God, and demonstrate that our ultimate hope is in Christ alone.

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