The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
If there’s one domestic problem that should be keeping us believers in American exceptionalism up at night, it’s the ailing middle class. Labor economists sometimes call ours an hourglass economy. The top bulge of the hourglass refers to a large population of educated workers earning good money, accumulating significant wealth, and living comfortable, optimistic lives. The bottom bulge holds another large group, living paycheck to paycheck, whose houses, if they have them, are under water and whose children’s futures look as dim as their own. Meanwhile, the middle, the once dominant, stolid, quintessentially American class, is wasting away.
There are two related causes for this, and neither of them suggests an easy—or for that matter, any—answer. The first cause, itself the consequence of technology and globalization, is the earnings gap between knowledge-based jobs and everything else. Clichés about the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs are true as far as they go, but any routine work is at risk of being automated or outsourced. That means the spoils now go to the specialized and the educated. Over the past 50 years, wages and wealth have risen markedly for those with a college diploma and even more dramatically for those with a graduate or professional degree. Whereas the college-educated earned 40 percent more than those with a high school degree in 1980, today they earn 75 percent more. It goes without saying that the gap for those without a high school degree—and remember, more than half of high school students drop out in many of our largest cities—is even worse. The current economic crisis is intensifying the problem. Unemployment rates are triple for those with only a high school degree compared with the college-educated and six times that of dropouts. Edward Wolff, of New York University, estimates that the net worth of the middle fifth of the country declined 26 percent over the past two years alone.
The other reason for the wasting away of the American middle class is the breakdown of families. Not so long ago, middle-class family life was defined by stability and child-centeredness. No more. According to the National Marriage Project, there’s been a sharp rise in divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing among the less-educated middle class, those with a high school diploma and perhaps a year or two of college. Only 58 percent of the 14-year-old daughters of moderately educated mothers are living with both parents. Not only is that down significantly from 1982, when the number was 74 percent; it is appreciably closer to the 52 percent of the daughters of the least educated than it is to the 81 percent of the girls of the college-educated. Forty percent of American children are born to unmarried mothers, almost all of them with little or no college education.
These two forces—the knowledge economy and the loss of stable family life among the less educated—create a negative-feedback loop. Children are far less likely to succeed in school if they don’t grow up in stable, child-focused families. Yet a college education is now a necessity for achieving upward mobility. In sum, the loss of a middle class threatens to turn America into a rigid and cynical caste society, the very opposite of its dynamic and optimistic self.
Kay S. Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys (Basic Books).