Boston Review May 21, 2015
Two new books worry about the unstable lives of the white working class. Both Andrew Cherlin, noted sociologist of the family, and Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone (2000) fame, warn that the economic insecurity blue-collar workers have faced over the last forty years has disordered the lives of white working-class children. That transformation, in turn, has handicapped their cognitive development, personal ties, community involvement, and economic success.
The basic story is well known. Since about 1970, there has been a gross deterioration in the jobs, wages, and employment stability available to men with no more than a high school degree. A few conservative writers have tried to muddle these facts, but facts they are. And it is not just that the economic fortunes of less-educated men have diverged sharply from those of men with bachelor’s degrees; the latter have been marrying the growing number of prospering women with degrees, too. (Of course, because Americans today have much more schooling, on average, than they did fifty years ago, the less-educated among us make up a much smaller and less academically skilled portion of the whole population. But the basic account stands.)
During roughly the same period, Americans came to accept premarital sex, divorce, single-parent households, and the widespread pursuit of self-fulfillment. The coincidence of these economic and cultural trends has stirred heated debate. Much of the analysis is a recasting—sometimes crudely, sometimes subtly—of the debate over rising rates of single motherhood in black families which has been with us since the Moynihan Report raised alarms in 1965.
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These books overlap in subject and approach—both authors title their last chapters, “What Is to Be Done?”—but Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, enlivened by many personal stories gathered by Jennifer Silva, focuses on unequal opportunity. Putnam argues that poor and working-class youth’s chances of moving up have declined since the 1950s. This is not an original thesis, but Putnam conveys the evidence in his usually compelling way. He presents the story of family disorder and goes beyond it to show how schools, increasingly segregated by parental income, fail to close and may even widen the academic and soft-skills gaps. Putnam is particularly irritated by requirements that families pay for extracurricular activities, an important training ground for success. And he reports on working-class families’ weakening social ties to potentially helpful mentors and references. Their kids are falling farther behind.
Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America provides a longer historical take on the white working-class family. He also more directly confronts the charge—made most noisomely by Charles Murray, as I discussed in these pages three years ago—that the origin of the economic and social crises of the white working class is cultural: the baleful influence of 1960s hippie hedonism.
Cherlin first shows that the class gap in marriage rates is not new. In 1880 about 65 percent of white, U.S.-born men between ages twenty and forty-nine who worked in the professions or in managerial positions were married, but only 38 percent of similar men in service jobs were married. That is a twenty-seven-point gap. By 1960 more men of all classes were marrying, and the class gap had narrowed to about fifteen points. But by 2010, marriage rates had dropped, most sharply for service workers; the class gap is roughly the size it was before, about 59 versus 30 percent. Cherlin argues that this rise and fall of working-class marriage follows the rise and fall of economic equality.
Some believe that no social program could restore working-class stability.
The stability and lifestyle of the white working-class family followed a similar up-and-down trajectory. In the nineteenth century, married men needed their wives and daughters to earn money mainly at home—doing piecework such as sewing shirt collars and taking in roomers—and needed their sons to work outside the home. The emerging middle-class model—one man fully supports a family while the wife tends to the home and the children to learning—was to most workers a mirage. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, the economy provided enough stable working-class jobs at family wages to often make the mirage attainable. For a brief time, both white middle-class and working-class children typically grew up in male-breadwinner families. A half-century later, such jobs had dwindled; the foundation for the stable working-class family had cracked. Meanwhile, the middle class had moved on to a newer, egalitarian, two-career model of the family.
Today’s economic insecurity is, of course, far less than that of the nineteenth century. Economic downturns used to drive millions of unemployed men to tramp the country’s roads rather than sign up at the unemployment office. Expectations are also quite different. Far more Americans—women especially—expect to find happiness in personal liberty, including sexual liberty, and a fully satisfying marriage. Achieving the latter has become increasingly class-dependent.
The well-educated enjoy the new freedoms. They marry relatively late and stay married, they bear children in marriage, and they intensely prepare those children for success. The poorly educated also value marriage and also delay marrying as they seek financial security and the right partner. For both groups getting married caps rather than begins a successful adulthood.
But for the working class, those expectations are increasingly unrealistic. As a result, Cherlin writes, a critical issue, especially for women, is “what to do about children until one marries.” Unlike a century ago, many do not and cannot wait for the right partner and time. Years pass; young adults have sex, serial attachments, and children. The result is an unstable family life for millions of children. Working-class parents, many of them single mothers or couples together only temporarily, have a hard time giving their children the close attention and stability necessary to succeed. For all the celebrations of family diversity, children do notably better with two stable adults, preferably both their own parents. The child-rearing gap makes the class gap multigenerational.
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Cherlin and Putnam both answer the cultural explanation by arguing that the white working-class crisis is the product of a bad economy and an aspirational culture. Children, self-fulfillment, and a lifelong soul mate depend on stable and well-paid employment. In their “What Is to Be Done?” chapters, both authors report that efforts to reeducate working-class Americans to make more pragmatic choices, along with hortatory programs to foster and preserve marriages, have borne little fruit. Instead, “sustained economic revival for low-paid workers would be as close to a magic bullet as I can imagine,” Putnam writes. To that forlorn wish he adds, as does Cherlin, the basic liberal package for improving the education, work, and income of working-class Americans. (And yet, Jill Lepore criticizes Putnam in The New Yorker for not pushing still more radical ideas.) Some believe that no program could restore working-class stability, but social democratic nations show that policies can protect children even in the new economy.
Each of these authors notes, but does not emphasize, another coincident trend: rising gender equality. The halcyon days for working-class children—the 1950s—may have been ones of quiet despair for housewives. It is unlikely that we will return there. Working-class women today expect more, and because they are catching up or passing working-class men in learning and earning, they demand more. They are more economically independent, sometimes independent with children. Conservatives have attributed women’s independence to welfare, but the post-welfare reform years show that its sources are broader. Middle-class men are forming new kinds of stable families with independent middle-class women. But working-class men are increasingly left out—and so are their children.
Claude S. Fischer is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Made in America. In his bimonthly BR column, Fischer explores controversial social and cultural issues using tools of sociology and history.