Can Good Public Policy Reverse Growing Cultural Inequality?

Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has an excellent article on the growing cultural divide between lifestyles of the upper class and the lower class. It’s well worth your time to read the entire article, but I’ll go through some of the highlights here to put my argument about potential public policy responses in context.

Murray uses two fictional neighborhoods, the upper class Belmont and the lower class Fishtown, to track changes in society from 1960 though 2010. He notes that Fishtown residents are less likely to be married, more likely to be single parents, more likely to be out of the labor force (this is different than being unemployed), more likely to be affected by crime, and more likely to be de facto secular (attend church no more than once a year).

All of this was true in 1960, but the gap has been getting significantly wider since then. Murray argues that in 1960 the difference were not large enough to cause a huge gap in culture. For example, though a wealthier person might have a bigger TV and/or kitchen, they would still probably watch the same shows and prepare the same foods as their poorer neighbors. They would have drank the same beers. And upper class citizens likely would have had middle or lower class parents, and so had memories that kept them in touch with the lifestyles of the middle and lower class. While some of these could be taken as interesting quirks individually, Murray argues that taken altogether they represent cultural separation.

These [separate practices] have to do with the food Belmonters eat, their drinking habits, the ages at which they marry and have children, the books they read (and their number), the television shows and movies they watch (and the hours spent on them), the humor they enjoy, the way they take care of their bodies, the way they decorate their homes, their leisure activities, their work environments and their child-raising practices. Together, they have engendered cultural separation.

Murray continues with a more precise analysis of how the super-wealthy have also separated into a few neighborhoods he calls SuperZIPs. Apart from the obvious problems of social stratification this is also problematic because most of the extremely powerful institutions that shape society are located in the SuperZIPs, so a small percentage of the population that is continuing to loose touch with everyone else is now making policy decisions for everyone.

Thus far, I agree with Murray’s analysis of the problem. But his solutions are troubling.

the formation of the new upper class has been driven by forces that are nobody’s fault and resist manipulation. The economic value of brains in the marketplace will continue to increase no matter what, and the most successful of each generation will tend to marry each other no matter what. As a result, the most successful Americans will continue to trend toward consolidation and isolation as a class. Changes in marginal tax rates on the wealthy won’t make a difference. Increasing scholarships for working-class children won’t make a difference.

The only thing that can make a difference is the recognition among Americans of all classes that a problem of cultural inequality exists and that something has to be done about it.

Murray clarifies that once Americans have decided something must be done, that something is “individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children.” I don’t quibble with his idea that it is actually in the interest of the superwealthy to break out of their own bubble and to help reduce cultural inequality, but I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t take the form of both individual actions and collective democratic actions. If people truly are concerned with cultural inequality, why shouldn’t they vote for policies that might reduce it?

Furthermore, his notion that marginal tax rates and working-class scholarships won’t matter is a an ideological position that is unsubstantiated by evidence. Growth in income inequality and a decrease in social mobility is at least part of the driving force behind cultural inequality. Early in the article he points to having recently upwardly mobile citizens with working class backgrounds as part of the reason cultural inequality was held in check in the 1960s. Given the demographic differences between the college educated and the non-college educated that he spends the entire article highlighting, programs that help children of working class parents get degrees and become middle class should be high on his list of policy prescriptions to bridge the culture gap.

Murray is correct that public policy alone cannot close this gap. But it is unfortunate that his ‘solutions’ focus only on individual action. Not only does he exclude the possibility of public policy playing a role, he also neglects to give a reasonable analysis of the role of civil society organizations, like churches, in slowing down and potentially reversing cultural inequality. Looking at the role of civil society and governance in reversing cultural trends would certainly be more helpful than suggesting that society will auto-correct based on individuals suddenly recognizing and acting on their long-term self-interest.

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One thought on “Can Good Public Policy Reverse Growing Cultural Inequality?

  1. Pingback: Bridging the Gap Between Right Wing and Left Wing Social Analysis « Faith and Public Policy

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