There is a story the media likes to tell about American economic and cultural history. It goes something like this: Once upon a time, decades ago, working-class Americans enjoyed a glide path to prosperity. Fathers and sons worked side-by-side at the mill or the plant or the quarry. They could expect high wages and lifetime employment. They could build and support families. Then, the mill closed. Jobs fled to China or automation rendered them superfluous. Families were cast upon a safety net shredded by heartless politicians, and with few prospects and no financial security, despair settled in. Now, Americans are dying – drinking and drugging themselves to death at an alarming rate.
Responding to the crisis, the Washington Post is launching a series on the plight of the white working class, beginning with the heartbreaking story of Anna Marie Jones and her family. Jones drank herself to death, dying at age 54 of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver. Jones is one of hundreds of thousands who have contributed to “a spike in mortality not seen since the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.”
She had been born on the way to the hospital in the back seat of her father’s car, the ninth of 10 children, and the family joke was that Anna had never stopped hurtling her way into the world. At a time when life on the far edges of the middle class came with dependable opportunities, her older siblings left home for the quarry, the machine shop and the military, and Jones moved out along with them even though she was only 17. (Emphasis added.)
This vision of the good old days is convenient for those who lament the present, but is it actually true? Yes, plants have closed in some communities, but factories have opened in others. Detroit has suffered, to be sure, but car manufacturing is thriving in the South. (For example, my own hometown – Georgetown, Kentucky – was transformed from a struggling farming community into a thriving industrial center when Toyota opened an enormous Camry plant there.) When you look past the heartstring-tugging anecdotal evidence, there is a clear, less pleasant reality: Today, we have less poverty and a stronger social safety net than we did in the idealized past — and our white-working class is dying in droves anyway.
You’ll notice that the “good old days” – the years surrounding Jones’s birth – were years of much higher poverty. Yes, the rate was decreasing, but it was still more than twice as high as the all-time lows in the early 1970s and the late 1990s.
Next, there was this chart of the growth of spending on safety-net programs as a percentage of GDP:
The early 1960s were years of much higher (though declining) poverty and much lower social spending. In the late 1960s, social spending skyrocketed (and kept climbing), while the poverty rate stagnated, bouncing between 11 and 15 percent. The safety net hasn’t been “shredded.” The old days weren’t days of greater prosperity. American life was never easy, but it was much harder in the recent past than it is now.
Jones’s story bears this out. She wasn’t a casualty of the system but of an almost pathological self-destructiveness. In fact, earlier in life, Jones was on her way up. She started working at a Kmart snack bar, became a manager, and by her mid-20s was training to become a regional manager. Here’s how the Post describes what happened next:
But the promotion never materialized and the marriage took work, and after a while her eagerness turned to restlessness. She drank more. She tried drugs. She left Kmart. She was arrested for drinking and for failing to pay her taxes. Her marriage unraveled and she moved home to Oklahoma with the kids.
This is a textbook illustration of the spiritual and moral crisis – the loss of core values – that has slowly poisoned American culture over the decades. Marriages take work. Restless spirits have to be tempered with self-control. To declare these obvious truths isn’t cruel. Indeed, to relieve people of responsibility for their actions is to treat them like children. It’s the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
The story is missing something else, as well: any evidence of church or civic involvement. It’s not simply that struggling men and women are making poor choices, but that they’re doing so without the help of a real community of neighbors who can counsel struggling spouses, mentor children, and provide the support and connections addicts so desperately need.
One can’t read the Post piece without thinking of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, perhaps the seminal book of the decade. Spend any real time on the ground in working-class America, and you’ll see all the things that Murray describes: broken families, declining church attendance, and communal alienation. Cross the tracks to the nicer side of town, and the picture changes. There is more religious engagement, more civic involvement, and a healthier sense of shared responsibility and pride.
Life has always been hard for the poor, but it has not always been quite so lonely. Part of this is the legacy of the welfare state, which allows and even encourages lives of quiet desperation, cut off from the communities that used to sustain the less fortunate in their struggles. Part of this is the legacy of the sexual revolution, which devalued marriage and irreversibly cast off the “shackles” of self-denial. And, yes, part of it is economics. Losing a job is among the most stressful of all human experiences.
The complex nature of the crisis should not be a license to avoid facing its ultimate truth head on: America’s working class is in the grips of a malady far more spiritual than material. We can spend trillions more, but safety nets won’t save the human soul.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.