Sunday, July 15, 2012

The 'Values" Excuse

Mohammed visits unfaithful women in Hell, 15th c.
America has become increasingly divided by family.  That is, the more affluent middle class tends to have more stable, two-parent homes, while the lower middle-class and working poor have much higher rates of single-parenthood.  This only compounds the struggles they face.  A story in the NY Times this morning states,
 Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.
It illustrates this divide by contrasting the lives of two families - one working class mother struggling to pay the bills for herself and three kids after the no-good father left, and two middle-class parents able to afford yearly cruises, good schools for the kids and extra-curricular activities.  The stories are meant to paint a picture of what usually happens, not what is possible.  Many single mothers are able to find jobs that support their families comfortably, and send their children to college.  But this is not the norm.  Statistically, they tend to be less educated, and their children ending up so.

What is so often missing from these stories is a sense of causality.  We see a correlation between education and stable families.  But what does that mean?  Is it a simple matter of income?  Surely, better pay means a mother is better able to afford a nicer neighborhood, with nicer schools and a safer environment.  But this doesn't explain how it is that undereducated families are less stable, births are often out of wedlock, and from multiple partners.

It seems easy to make hand-waving claims about declining morality and values.  If these people would just have safe sex, or wait until they find a good partner - demonstrating proper values, their children would have stable homes, and an opportunity for more success.  Indeed, decades ago, this was clearly happening.

Yet, even in the "good old days", we still had poverty and economic segregation.  It wasn't as if all that family stability was enforcing economic mobility.  The lower classes were still staying poor.  Poverty still meant poor neighborhoods, more crime, worse schools, etc.  It's easy to look at staggering numbers about family breakdown and assume it is responsible for poverty today, considering that family instability is suboptimal.

But let us return to the question of why exactly it is that the poor seem to have more trouble forming lasting family bonds.  Why are so many children being born out of wedlock, to parents unable to stay together, with fathers out of the picture.

In the story, details are not given but the father of the poor mother's children is implied to have been somewhat of a menace, finally requiring police to remove him from the house in the end.  One can imagine that, decades ago, the scene might have played out differently, with the mother quietly suffering her partner's behavior.  Indeed, they would no doubt have been married - the young woman resigned to her primary role in life as obedient wife.  Would it be so terrible a thing if social norms evolved to allow for a woman to dream of more, even if it meant lower on average rates of family stability?

And yet, the poor will still be poor.  This economic reality of capitalism cannot be denied.

A question I have is why affluent couples have higher rates of family stability.  The gap is clearly enormous.  And any social norms that evolved over the decades are lining up along class lines, not being distributed evenly.  Is Charles Murray correct in assuming that the affluent have better values?  What does that even mean?  The affluent tend to do a lot of things that give their children advantages.  They performed better in school, the went to college, they read more to their children.  They also grew up in nicer neighborhoods, went to nicer schools - with "nicer" children, and generally inherited opportunities for social advancement that the poor did not.

All of this is the stuff of human and societal capital.  It is not simply a "value".  The term value implies a clear choice.  But the choice is not clear, it arrives from the vast accumulation of life experiences one has.  It isn't as easy as simply possessing the "value" of choosing to have protected sex, choosing a partner you know will be a good father, or choosing to work hard in school and finish college. 

And yet it is enormously difficult to tease out what any individual's accumulation of experience ultimately has been, such that causality can be traced to the final problematic decision or outcome.  Articles like these, can only ever - in the course of a few pages - not only set the table for sociological discussion, but dig very deeply into an individual's lifelong developmental trajectory.  The forces at work are myriad and complex, interacting dynamically to push and pull an individual through time and space, society and consciousness.

In order to truly understand how class works, we must broaden our scope to include not merely one individual's conscious decision-making process, but the larger social structure in which they have developed, with a careful accounting of the advantages and disadvantages they have been afforded.  Things like attitudes, values and behaviors are merely the products - the symptoms - of social privilege, and ultimately the product of capitalism's economic requirement for a permanent underclass.  To see them as primary causes is not only lazy, but philosophically incoherent.

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