The Devastating Disconnect Between Rich and Poor

Posted by Lisa R. Pruitt

The Occupy Wall Street movement has recently drawn national attention to economic inequality, and several new studies and a book just published also invite us to consider the acuteness of this inequality, as well as its causes and/or consequences.   These publications all highlight education, to one degree or another, as a key indicator of class and class mobility.

The New York TimesNPR and the Los Angeles Times all ran features this week on Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart:  The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray, labeled “a libertarian social scientist” by NPR (and worse things by other liberal pundits), is a controversial figure due in large part to his co-authorship of The Bell Curve.  In that 1994 book, Murray described  a “cognitive elite” who, he argued, get ahead in large part because of their superior IQs.  The controversy was understandable given his assertion that whites tend to have higher IQs than African Americans and some other minorities.

I want to focus here, however, on some of the less controversial information featured in Coming Apart. By this, I mean to steer clear of the book’s commentary on values and related suggestions for remedying the problem.  (I do, however, recommend Paul Krugman’s op-ed and Nicholas Confessore’s review which offer incisive observations regarding those aspects of the book).  Also, to be clear, I have yet to read the book and so rely here on characterizations from media reports.

Murray asserts that class divides us more than race or ethnicity.  Having expressed my desire to avoid controversy, I acknowledge that this may be seen as a controversial assertion if it is read as claiming that we are in a post-racial era.  Nevertheless,  less controversial sociologists such as UC Berkeley’s Claude Fischer and Oberlin’s Greggor Mattson made similar assertions in their 2009 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, “Is America Fragmenting?”  Plus, the burgeoning significance of class is a common theme among recent studies.  I do not believe we are in a post-racial era, but I am deeply concerned about the ways in which class divides and the consequences of those divisions.

To continue on the sensitive topic of race for a moment, I note that Murray explains his focus on class divisions among whites in order “to concentrate the minds of my readers” whose “reflexive response” to the discussion of the various social problems discussed in the book might be to assume that these problems exist only within minority communities.  Murray says he wishes to make the point that these are white problems, too.  (I have made a similar argument in asserting that if we want to understand how severe a handicap class can be, we might best look at whites–even white men–those privileged on the basis of race and gender yet struggling for economic security and upward mobility). The final chapter of Murray’s book apparently shows how the impact of this class divide  among whites holds true across other racial and ethnic groups.

Murray emphasizes differences between what he calls the “new upper middle class” and the working class.  The way Murray slices and dices class, the former are 20% of white adults, and the latter constitute 30%.  The media coverage I have consumed does not indicate the income levels associated with these groups, nor does it indicate clearly whether Murray is focusing on the top and bottom segments of the white adult population or whether there might be a group below this “working class,” such as the 15% or so of Americans living in poverty, or a group above the upper middle class, i.e., the very rich, the 1%.

Murray’s depiction of these two groups focuses on educational, cultural and lifestyle differences between them.  (Read more here and here on the link between the cultural  and the material in relation to class).  Here is an illustrative quote from the NPR story:

Over the past 50 years the two groups have branched away from each other culturally and geographically. The “educated class,” Murray tells NPR’s Robert Siegel, has developed distinctive tastes and preferences in a way that is new in America, evinced in everything from the alcohol they drink and the cars they buy to how they raise their children and take care of themselves physically.

Added to that, spatial segregation has resulted in “ZIP codes that have levels of affluence and education that are so much higher than the rest of the population that they constitute a different kind of world,” he says.

The economic and social balkanization is potentially very pernicious.

Murray asserts that even going back to 1923, an era of “great social and religious division,” successful people tended to have working-or middle-class roots.   They thus had some shared experiences.  Now, however, many decision makers are “second or third generation affluent,” leaving them completely out of touch with the working class experience.

“The people who run the country have enormous influence over the culture, politics, and the economics of the country. And increasingly, they haven’t a clue about how most of America lives. They have never experienced it.”

Murray contrasts the present situation with Eisenhower’s 1952 cabinet, sometimes referred to as “nine millionaires and a plumber.”  Murray points out that those millionaires were mostly the sons of farmers and merchants and thus had not grown up in affluence.  Compared to President Obama’s cabinet, which is highly diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, Eisenhower’s cabinet reflected greater socioeconomic diversity.  (I have written about this here).

I have noted other contexts in which we see this evidence of this disconnect and its harms.  One is in the judiciary, as expressed by Judge Alex Kozinski in his 2010 dissent in Pineda-Moreno:

There’s been much talk about diversity on the bench, but there’s one kind of diversity that doesn’t exist: No truly poor people are appointed as federal judges, or as state judges for that matter. Judges, regardless of race, ethnicity or sex, are selected from the class of people who don’t live in trailers or urban ghettos. The everyday problems of people who live in poverty are not close to our hearts and minds because that’s not how we and our friends live.

617 F.3d 1120, 1123 (9th Cir. 2010).

Another context in which we see evidence of upper middle class obliviousness to the working class (and to their own class privilege) is in elite higher education admissions.  A prominent recent study shows that admissions officers tend to hold against applicants their high school work experiences, labeling working students as “careerist.”  Instead, admissions officers look for the sort of enrichment activities, e.g., international travel, music and arts training, associated with affluence. This suggests to me that admissions officers at posh colleges and universities know nothing about and therefore have no appreciation for the working class experience.  Needless to say, those admissions officers are also aggravating the class divide which Murray describes because they exclude those who could bring much needed socio-economic diversity to these career-making institutions.

The greater controversy associated with Murray’s book is that he makes culture (a euphemism for laziness, lack of discipline) a culprit in the decline of the working class, while ignoring structural changes that have undermined their economic stability.  On this point, I tend to agree with Frederick Lynch, who reviews the book for the Los Angeles Times.  Lynch points out that Murray’s focus on culture obscures something else:  “The destruction of values, economic sectors and entire occupational classes by automation and outsourcing.”

But those aspects of globalization aren’t all that Murray overlooks, as Lynch observes:

Murray inexplicably ignores a long line of studies showing that 21st century elites are post-American “citizens of the world” and that they’re too busily involved with building a new global economy to know — or care about — what happens to less fortunate people in their own or others’ nation-states.

The disconnect between rich and poor is not grounded merely in difference, it is grounded in disinterest at best, disdain at worst.

On the heels of this burst of media attention to Murray’s book comes a story in Friday’s New York Times headlined, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.”  In it,  Sabrina Tavernise reports on several recent studies which document and analyze burgeoning education inequality between upper and lower  classes–and also how these inequalities transcend race and ethnicity.  Tavernise describes how the “gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially” in recent decades, while the gap between white and black achievement has narrowed during the same period.  She discusses a number of studies by researchers at Stanford, Michigan, Chicago, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.

One study, forthcoming in Demography, found that “in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families” but that gap had widened to nine times as much in 2007.  The comment of one author of that study, Frank Furstenburg, suggests that the divide is cultural as well as material: “The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation.”  (I am reminded of the distinction that Joan Williams describes in her 2010 book between parenting styles of the affluent and the working class, the former fostering self-actualization and the latter self-discipline).

The gap between rich and poor is also reflected in college completion rates.  A University of Michigan study considered two cohorts of students.  Students in the first were born between 1961 and 1964, and students in the other were born between 1979 and 1982.  Among upper income students, college completion rates were high for both generations, but they increased significantly over time.  About a third of the upper income students in the first cohort completed college, but more than half of the latter cohort did so.  Among low-income students, however, the rates of college completion were much, much lower–at 5% for the earlier cohort, 9% for the latter.

Most studies that Tavernise discusses suggest that lower-income children and youth are held back educationally by a combination of the fiscal and cultural consequences of being lower income.

One thing increasingly clear from our nation’s newfound attention to class divisions is that the divide is grounded more in educational disparities than in any other single factor, e.g., income, parental occupation.   Educational access is thus critical to class migration–to access to the rarefied upper middle class.  Yet other studies remind us that–contrary to assertions like that of Murray that the cognitive elite get ahead because of their high IQs–“wealth, race and schooling are more important to the inheritance of economic status, but IQ is not a major contributor.”  (Bowles & Gintis 2002). Yet other studies tell us that income is a better predictor of college completion than are test scores.

These studies highlight another cost of the class divide: precious human capital.  And that loss should concern every American in this highly competitive, global economy.

Here’s a provocative piece about the class divide in the particular context of fine dining–the affluent diners on one side of the kitchen door, the working class kitchen staff on the other.  It also features the story of restauranteur Barbara Lynch’s class migration; she grew up the daughter of a taxi driver.

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog and SALTLaw Blog.

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This entry was posted in Education, Geography, Labor, Poverty, Race and Ethnicity, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Devastating Disconnect Between Rich and Poor

  1. Pingback: Extended Blog Entry on “The growing disconnect between rich and poor” by Lisa Pruitt | Poverty Law

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