Belated Book Review: Our Kids are Coming Apart, Part I

What’s the Big Idea?

Class has become a, if not the, central determinant of life outcomes in the United States. This is in stark contrast to the situation fifty years ago, when life outcomes had a more egalitarian distribution. Furthermore, class appears to be heritable and the classes are increasingly separated from each other, resulting in a vicious circle. Most disturbingly, on many metrics even the worst outcomes among the offspring of the rich still outperform the best of the poor.

More Details, Please

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is Robert Putnam’s contribution to the growing literature on the staggering class divides that have become apparent in the lives of Americans. A useful complement to this work is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which hits many of the same points but from a rather different political viewpoint. (In fact, these two authors have appeared together at many events lately discussing these issues)..

Now, why does Murray’s book have that subtitle, the state of white America? Because what these lines of research are finding is that class has eclipsed race in determining life outcomes. Obviously, in the past being a racial minority was a significant obstacle in reaching success, which is not to say that race doesn’t matter anymore. But it does seem that on average, the fact of belonging to one race or another is no longer a determinant of class: class membership has become deracialized to a large extent. But the door swings both ways, and as a passage to a better life has opened up for minorities, the fact of being white is no longer a screen keeping one from falling too far in society.

What kind of life outcomes are we talking about? The square footage of your house? The size of your television? Unfortunately, we’re talking about things beyond material wealth (and thus harder to fix with simple tools like redistribution): employment, educational attainment, health, personal relationships, and so on. Basically, everything we tend to think of as important in a life is worse for you with low socioeconomic status. (A quick note: when talking about class, the terms upper and lower tend to be laden with value judgements. Instead, I’ll be using the term socioeconomic status (SES), which can be thought of as a vector of the aforementioned qualities. SES is not a smooth continuum: there are peaks and valleys that have to be navigated to move across the scale, and many of the different categories of life outcomes are correlated, which leads to clustering. This makes it reasonable to speak of low and high SES as analogous to lower and upper class.) Broadly speaking, persons with low SES don’t get married, have children with multiple partners, don’t go to church or engage in community activities, have few close friends, are more likely to be unemployed, have higher rates of obesity, and live in high crime environments with poor schools.  

Society always has some who do better than others, and Americans have always been comfortable with some level of inequality. And it need not be the case that inequality of income and wealth inevitably lead to an inequality of opportunity; after all, for a time at least, this was more or less true in the United States. Hence, a growing distinction between classes, while worrisome in many aspects, doesn’t inherently signal that there is something fundamentally broken about society. Indeed, some could (and do) view such a thing as a good source of motivation; if the life of the poor is getting worse, all the more incentive for a younger generation to try harder to make sure they don’t end up like that.

But the research strongly suggests that this is wrong. While there is disagreement on the mechanism, what the research of Putnam and Murray shows is that class is increasingly heritable. If your parents were poor, you are far more likely to end up poor and subject to all the negative life outcomes detailed above, and vice versa. This strikes at the very heart of the notion of equality of opportunity, and suggests that inequality of wealth is in fact intimately tied up with inequality of opportunity.

In the next installment I’ll delve into theories on the cause of this phenomenon.

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