Blaming Decline in Family Values for Soaring Inequality

All the talk on the intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) right seems to be about Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” which asserts that the problem with blue-collar whites is … declining family values.

David Frum, who may really be the last honest conservative, published a terrific takedown recently in The Daily Beast. He writes:

“To understand what Murray does in ‘Coming Apart,’ imagine this analogy: A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers.

“The social scientist writes a report:

“The evidence strongly shows that living in houses is better for children and families than living in tents and trailers. The people on the waterfront are irresponsibly subjecting their children to unacceptable conditions.

“When he publishes his report, somebody points out: ‘You know, there was a hurricane here last week.’ The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, ‘I’m writing about housing, not weather.’ ”

And Alec MacGillis, a commentator at The New Republic, points out in a Feb. 6 online post that Mr. Murray himself grew up in a company town where Maytag provided good jobs for blue-collar workers — until it shut the plant and moved operations to Mexico.

“As Murray sees it,” wrote Mr. MacGillis, “the working class has been hurt less by economic shifts that have made it hard for its members — particularly the male ones — to earn a good living than it has by a lamentable decline in industriousness and social values brought on by the upheavals of the 1960s.”

He continued: “The question, then, for Murray and those who are using his theories to explain away inequality, can be put very concretely: did the community he enjoyed growing up in Newton [Iowa] really go away because his working-class neighbors mysteriously lost their gumption? It might have been simpler than that.”

From an analytical point of view, this would seem to be a very odd time to focus on the alleged moral decline of the lower classes. During the ‘60s, it was at least somewhat reasonable to ask why social ills were rising though a booming economy was producing widely shared gains (although as the sociologist William Julius Wilson pointed out in his book “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor,” work was disappearing in the inner cities, and this helped explain rising social problems among those trapped in those inner cities).

But now we have an economy that has left blue-collar workers behind: why invoke social values to explain their plight?

And to the extent that social decay is a reality among, say, those in the bottom third of the income distribution among whites, doesn’t this say that Mr. Wilson was right; that lack of economic opportunity is what breeds social disruption?

Of course, the sudden fuss about values makes perfect sense from a political point of view, as a distraction from the issue of soaring incomes at the top.

This Is a Strange Form of Social Collapse

Reading Mr. Murray’s book and all the commentary about the sources of moral collapse among working-class whites, I’ve had a nagging question: Is it really all that bad?

I mean, yes, marriage rates are way down, and labor force participation is down among working-age men (although not as much as some of the rhetoric might imply), but it’s generally left as an implication that these trends must be causing huge social ills. Are they?

Well, one thing oddly missing in Mr. Murray’s work is any discussion of that traditional indicator of social breakdown, teenage pregnancy. Why? Because it has actually been falling like a stone, according to National Vital Statistics data.

And what about crime? It’s soaring, right? Wrong, according to Justice Department data.

So here’s a thought: maybe traditional social values are eroding in the white working class — but maybe those traditional social values aren’t as essential to a good society as conservatives like to imagine.

Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.

Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).

Copyright 2012 The New York Times.