When I was growing up in the 1970s I knew a few hippie families in which the longhaired flower-children parents never married formally, the kids ran wild and the parents worked at strange professions like selling homemade jewelry at weekend craft fairs. Yet, truth be told, they embodied virtually all of the traditional values of marital fidelity, industriousness, faith and family to an amazing degree.
The tragedy of modern life is that the virtues that contribute to a happy life are increasingly limited by class and economics – certainly between whites and minority populations but also, as recent research has shown, among whites. It’s not that upscale whites are intrinsically more virtuous; it’s that the moral habits that give rise to a happy life are tied to stable families and larger cultural communities – things that increasingly exist only among the prosperous.
In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in a cultural as well as economic sense.
In a book published last year, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, the conservative sociologist Charles Murray argues that a cultural chasm now divides upper-class and blue collar whites.
While a liberal stereotype assigns “traditional values” to blue-collar rednecks in the South and Midwest, Murray argues that actually such values are more common in affluent, upper-class, liberal enclaves like Palo Alto, California, and McLean, Virginia. Marriage and church attendance, for example, are increasingly correlated with income, not race.
Murray produces reams of statistics to show that less than five percent of white, college-educated women have children outside of marriage while 40 percent of white women with only high school diplomas do – eight times more.
Other analysts agree.
In a study for the Brookings Institution, The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America, Andrew J. Cherlin and W. Bradford Wilcox argue that a sea change is happening to marriage among the poorer half of young people under age 34 – and it doesn’t bode well for the future.
“In the affluent neighborhoods where many college-educated Americans live, marriage is alive and well and stable families are the rule,” Cherlin and Wilcox point out. “Young Americans with college degrees, once thought to be a cultural vanguard, are creating a neotraditional style of family life: although they may cohabit with their partners, nearly all of them marry before having their first child. Furthermore, while most wives work outside the home, the divorce rate in this group has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s.”
But the same cannot be said about the poorer half of young adults. For them, marriage is increasingly the exception, not the rule. “The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America,” the authors conclude.
This seismic shift has dramatic, very real world consequences. According to a report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2012, “children born or raised outside of marriage are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems – including drug use, depression, attempted suicide and dropping out of high school – compared to children in intact, married families.”
The National Marriage Project research also supports the idea that cohabitation, even with children, is not the same thing as a vowed marriage. For one thing, despite high divorce rates, marriages last longer: cohabitating relationships are much less stable than married ones. “Cohabiting couples who have a child together are about twice as likely as married couples to break up before their child turns twelve,” the authors note.
The same class disparities when it comes to marriage are also true, somewhat surprisingly, of religion. While President Barrack Obama famously ridiculed poor whites as “clinging to their guns and religion,” the statistics paint the opposite picture: After the upheavals of the 1970s subsided, church attendance among upper-income, college-educated whites has actually increased in recent years while church attendance among blue collar workers has plummeted to historic lows.
Using data from the General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center, and the National Survey of Family Growth, Cherlin and Wilcox discovered that church attendance among the poor and least educated dropped from 38 percent to 23 percent over the past four decades. In contrast, church attendance by higher-income whites with college degrees barely dipped at all, dropping from 50 percent to 46 percent in the same period. More recent studies of the past five years shows church attendance actually increasing slightly.
In their report, “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class,” Cherlin and Wilcox argue that the decline in church attendance among poorer Americans and the middle class is important for many reasons but they highlight three:
First, “religious institutions typical supply their members with social and civic skills, and often a worldview that motivates them to engage the political or civic spheres, that increase their civic and political participation.”
Second, “Religious institutions appear to foster higher levels of physical and psychological health among their members, both by providing social support and by furnishing people with a sense of meaning,
Third, “some research suggests that least and moderately educated Americans are especially likely to benefit from the social support and civic skills associated with religious institutions. The non-college-educated often lack the degree of access to social networks and civic skills that the college-educated have; and religious activity can compensate for this deficit.”
Put simply, without the reinforcement provided by broader cultural communities, especially religious communities, individuals are less likely to develop the moral habits that make strong families possible. Thus each generation sees a gradual increase in single parent households, childhood poverty, high school dropout rates and unemployment.
All this leads Charles Murray to denounce the “hypocrisy in reverse” of America’s cultural elites: they do not “preach what they practice,” he says. While they make mega-fortunes “preaching” sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, their actual lives are often as boring and traditional as Ozzie and Harriet. In other words, it’s all an act, an absurd pose, to make money. Sex sells. Rebellion sells more.
Many teenagers were shocked, when MTV produced a reality television show about the home life of legendary rocker Ozzie Osborne and his long-suffering wife, Sharon, precisely because it revealed a prosperous, privileged life of almost stultifying domesticity with nary a groupie in sight. It’s a common theme in Hollywood and the entertainment industries: TV actors and executives who won’t let their own children watch the trashy programmes they make.
Murray’s point is that the overachieving children of Silicon Valley techies and Hollywood executives are often raised in stable families, sent to elite private schools, and go to church or synagogue regularly, yet these same elites wouldn’t be caught dead recommending such conservative lifestyle choices to the general public. It would hurt sales.
As a result, the children in upper-class liberal enclaves study hard, get high SAT scores, get into Ivy League schools, land good jobs in growing industries, and get married and have children. The children in blue collar white households, increasingly, drop out of college, get their girlfriends pregnant and face increasingly bleak economic prospects.
The lesson is obvious. Marriage matters. Family matters. Education matters. Work matters. Religious communities matter. These are not empty words but the facts of life. A young adult from an affluent family may take them for granted, but one from a poor family, or no family at all, may need to learn them the hard way – unless someone offers them the following advice.
Decide that you will finish high school and go to college, no matter what it takes. Decide you will get married and stay married. Decide you will work hard, and do whatever it takes to protect and nurture and love your children. Decide to take your children – to drag them kicking and screaming if necessary ‑ to church, temple or synagogue. Decide to make education a priority in your home. Decide you will stay the course, finish the race.
It’s not just conservative church folks who say this. The affluent techies of Silicon Valley and the producers of Hollywood blockbusters do, too – just not publicly.
Robert Hutchinson, a veteran travel writer, studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to study Hebrew, and earned an MA in Biblical studies. He writes frequently on the intersection of religion and popular culture at http://roberthutchinson.com/