Research on both sides of the aisle has confirmed a quiet crisis in American life: over the last few decades, the social fabric of the poor and working class has come apart at the seams. For Americans in roughly the bottom third of the economy, marriage has collapsed and divorce has ballooned. Participation in work or in community groups is erratic at best. Children are largely raised in unstable, single-parent homes, where the support necessary for learning and healthy emotional development is very hard to come by. Loneliness and isolation are common.The evidence is indeed pretty dramatic. There's been a society-wide decrease in marriage and increase in single parenthood, but that change has been most dramatic among the poor. Spross includes a chart from Charles Murray's Coming Apart which shows how, although marriage rates were always lower among the poor, the gap has become much more dramatic since the '70s.
A vocal cadre of conservatives have cohered around a theory of what happened: the post-1960s turn away from traditional moral values. But like any theory, it must fit the available data and it must be internally consistent. This one fails on both counts.
Instead, Occam's Razor suggests that economic changes — specifically the collapse of broad prosperity and the rise of inequality and the hourglass economy — is the lead culprit.
Spross points to the decline in unionization, etc. as the culprit, and argues that this is a far simpler explanation than blaming the shift on changes in cultural values.
That inflection point just after 1970, when the lower class begins its decline, is significant. Unions began devolving in the late 50s and really went into a slide in the late 60s. Median incomes stagnated compared to rising productivity right around 1970. And around 1980, right when the lower class really broke off from the upper class, was when the Federal Reserve induced a massive recession to fight inflation. Unemployment and involuntary part-time employment have been unusually high ever since, and it's taken the job market far longer to recover after each recession.
There follows more hand-waving about how things are tough for those at the lower end of the economy. And they are. But here's the problem. They always have been. The effect that we're looking to explain is a massive decrease in marriage rates and increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing. If we're going to explain that as driven by a bad economy, we'd expect to see the incomes of those people getting worse, right? But they haven't. Here's a handy Congressional Budget Office chart showing the change in inflation-adjusted after-tax income from 1979 to 2010 for households by quintile.
It's certainly true that the bottom 20% haven't grown as much as the top 20% or even the middle 20%, but all quintiles have in fact seen real income growth. If we're trying to explain a societal environment in which marriage has fallen apart badly for the poorer section of society, and fallen apart somewhat for the affluent, and your explanation is that this is because people aren't as well off as they were in the '50s and '60s, it seems pretty clear that you'd need to see incomes going down for the poorest section of society in order to make your argument work. We've seen unionization go down. We've seen the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage go down. But real after tax incomes for the poorest Americans are up.
I was trying to think of other ways that this hypothesis could be tested. One which occurred to me is trying to break the population down by race. The out-of-wedlock birth rate for African American families is significantly higher than for White families (72% versus 29%) however, the increase has not been as dramatic over the last 50 years in that it was higher in 1960 as well. Here's a graph I found on a Heritage report.
Since 1960 the out-of-wedlock birth rate for African Americans has increased by about 3.5x while the rate for Whites has increased by 10x. If you look at median incomes by race via the Census, you'll see that inflation adjusted median income for African American men has gone up by 82% from 1960 to 2001, while for white men it's only gone up by 35% (for women those numbers are 272% and 135% respectively.) This does have a certain inverse relation to what we see on out-of-wedlock births, in that white out of wedlock births have increased more, but again we have the problem that incomes have in fact gone up, while marriage and the family have clearly gone down.
Now, one theory which Spross does not air, but which one occasionally hears either from liberals who think the decline in marriage is a good sign or from those conservatives who think that women in the workplace are a bad thing, is that it's the fact that women have better incomes now in relation to men which makes women need men less and thus less inclined to marry. I don't know whether I buy that theory or not, but since I had the data from the Census I figured it could be interesting to run a graph, and here's the result. I've charted the ratio of women's income to men's income by race:
Black women have incomes close to those of Black men than do White women in relation to White men. There's also kind of a dip in the 50s and 60s where White women's incomes dipped in relation to White men's. This doesn't mean that White women's median incomes went down, it's just that White men's median incomes went up so much faster during the 50s and 60s than women's did. Black women did not suffer a similar dip. (I originally had a comment here saying this was doubtless because racial discrimination kept Black male incomes from experiencing the 50s and 60s boom which White male incomes did -- but actually it turns out that Black men saw their incomes rise at the same rate as White men from 1950 to 1965, it's just that their starting income in 1950 was much lower.) White women saw their income ratio inflect upwards and start to rise fast in 1979, so that would kind of fit Spross's story, in which everything goes bad in 1980, but I'm not sure he would want to reframe and blame women's liberation.
So we're not finding any clear stories here. A little later Spross tries to make some international comparisons. He says:
Other western countries do far more to reduce deprivation in absolute and relative terms, while coincidentally enjoying far greater family stability.
On family stability he links to this report. It's pretty damning. The US shows up low on the list, while right at the top with 94% percent of children living with two parents is that well known northern European social democracy... Jordan. Then Israel -- at least they have a good economy and welfare state. Then Egypt, not exactly known either for its booming economy or its generous welfare state. Are we doing so badly on family values because our economy and social programs are worse than Egypt? Then Italy, Poland, Malaysia... The Philippines ranks well above social democracy poster child Sweden. And yes, the US ranks below Ethiopia and above the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Oh, you say, but I'm not accounting for cultural factors. It's cultural factors which have Egypt ranking way above the US.
Cultural factors. Well, if it's cultural factors that have 89% of kids in Egypt living with both parents while only 69% of kids in America do, couldn't it just possibly be cultural factors which have changed in the US between 1950 and 2015? No epicycles are required. Occam's razor is appeased.