Politics & Policy

The Crisis of the Middle

The decline in marriage amplifies Middle America’s economic woes.

The unemployment rate for people with a college degree or higher is 5 percent. If that were the rate for everyone, it’d be the 1990s again.

But college graduates are only 30 percent of the country. For the rest of the population, the jobs picture is grimmer. For people without a high-school degree, the unemployment rate is more than 15 percent. If that were the rate for everyone, it’d be the 1930s again.

#ad#The unemployment rates are part of a growing divergence between the fortunes of the college educated and the rest of the country, including proverbial Middle America. In his new study, “When Marriage Disappears,” University of Virginia scholar Brad Wilcox details how the college-educated have embraced traditional mores and habits — especially the formation of stable families — while they erode among everyone else.

Our elites, broadly defined as the top third of our society, aren’t nearly as decadent as advertised. According to Wilcox’s data, the highly educated (with a college diploma or higher) are less likely to divorce, less likely to have children out of wedlock, and less likely to commit adultery than the moderately educated (high-school degree or some college) and the least-educated (no high-school diploma).

The moderately educated might be called the lower-middle class or upper-working class. Wilcox refers to them as the “solid middle”: “They are not upscale, but they are not poor. They don’t occupy any of the margins, yet they are often overlooked, even though they make up the largest share of the American middle class.” He documents an equally disturbing separation between the top and the rest, and a convergence between the middle and the bottom.

In the 1970s, 73 percent of both the highly and moderately educated were in intact first marriages. That figure plummeted across the board, yet the moderately educated (45 percent in intact first marriages) are now closer to the least-educated (39 percent) than to the highly educated (56 percent).

The number for out-of-wedlock births is starker. From 1982 until today, the percentage of non-marital births among the moderately educated exploded from 13 percent to 44 percent. That figure is close to the least-educated (54 percent) and a vast distance from the highly educated (only 6 percent). Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation compares the dynamic to a carpet unraveling from the bottom, as illegitimacy first took hold among the poor and now works up the income scale.

This phenomenon is a calamity for the non-college educated. Growing up in a two-parent family brings enormous social advantages. Children in these families, Wilcox notes, are more likely “to graduate from high school, finish college, become gainfully employed, and enjoy a stable family life themselves.” An institution absolutely critical to children’s prospects is slowly becoming associated with the upper third.

Social trends are intertwining with economic trends, like increased unemployment and declining wages, in a downward spiral. “High school–educated young men today,” Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University writes, “may be the first generation in memory to earn less than their fathers did.” This economic pressure makes it harder to marry; the lack of marriage, in turn, denies men crucial social stability (married men earn more than single men with the same education and job histories).

All of this points to a slow-motion social and economic evisceration of a swath of Middle America. Wilcox even invokes the possibility of “a 21st century version of a traditional Latin-American model of family life, where only a comparatively small oligarchy enjoys a stable married and family life — and the economic and social fruits that flow from strong marriages.”

At the moment, American politics offers two separate, distinct ways not to address these issues: Either the brain-dead populism of the Left that blames it all on trade and the decline of unions, or the brain-dead populism of the Right that extols the working class without taking serious note of its agony. We’ll have to do better: There’s a crisis in the middle.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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