The White Underclass
Kristof weighs in as well:
Today, I fear we're facing a crisis in which a chunk of working-class America risks being calcified into an underclass, marked by drugs, despair, family decline, high incarceration rates and a diminishing role of jobs and education as escalators of upward mobility. We need a national conversation about these dimensions of poverty, and maybe Murray can help trigger it. I fear that liberals are too quick to think of inequality as basically about taxes. Yes, our tax system is a disgrace, but poverty is so much deeper and more complex than that.
Where Murray is profoundly wrong, I think, is to blame liberal social policies for the pathologies he examines. Yes, I've seen disability programs encourage some people to drop out of the labor force. But there were far greater forces at work, such as the decline in good union jobs.
Eighty percent of the people in my high school cohort dropped out or didn't pursue college because it used to be possible to earn a solid living at the steel mill, the glove factory or sawmill. That's what their parents had done. But the glove factory closed, working-class jobs collapsed and unskilled laborers found themselves competing with immigrants.
There aren't ideal solutions, but some evidence suggests that we need more social policy, not less. Early childhood education can support kids being raised by struggling single parents. Treating drug offenders is far cheaper than incarcerating them.
A new study finds that a jobs program for newly released prison inmates left them 22 percent less likely to be convicted of another crime. This initiative, by the Center for Employment Opportunities, more than paid for itself: each $1 brought up to $3.85 in benefits.
So let's get real. A crisis is developing in the white working class, a byproduct of growing income inequality in America. The pathologies are achingly real. But the solution isn't finger-wagging, or averting our eyes — but opportunity.
February 8, 2012