Over the coming decade, the debate over the size and shape of government is likely to grow more intense. In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, the project of welfare-state expansion is moving to new frontiers, such as paid parental leave, universal early education, wage insurance, more generous welfare programs, and eased eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits.
Given our present fiscal straits, such proposals seem unrealistic. Assuming economic growth returns, however, the desire for welfare-state expansion along such lines will eventually grow stronger, for a simple reason: Families are falling apart, and government will continue to be called upon to pick up the slack.
Not all families are falling apart. College-educated adults continue to marry at high rates. Many families continue to cultivate a sense of motivation and self-control in their children, to accumulate savings, and to maintain strong networks of friends and extended-family members. But others do not — and as skills, resources, and networks are passed on from one generation to the next, the damage accumulates, and the gap between adults who come from a history of stable families and those who come from a history of unstable ones grows. Viewed through this lens, the fact that the children of affluent families are far more likely to be affluent than the children of poor families, a relationship that Scott Winship has discussed in these pages, is hardly surprising.
Welfare-state expansions have always involved giving the government responsibilities that were once within the purview of families and communities. Social Security, for example, was designed to address poverty among the aged as a growing number of older Americans outlived their meager savings and a growing number of adult children either could not or would not take on the responsibility of providing care. Medicaid aimed to provide medical care to the poor, a responsibility that had traditionally been met by a patchwork of local charities and governments.
Yet even as poor families have seen some of their burdens eased, many still lack the ability to meet other responsibilities, such as instilling discipline and a willingness to defer gratification in children. The idea behind universal early education, after all, is that many poor children are raised in chaotic environments and thus lack skills that are necessary to persevere through high school and meet professional obligations. The hope is that immersing poor children in a structured learning environment will insulate them from the chaos of their home lives and help them acquire these skills. And the idea behind paid parental leave, wage insurance, and other cash transfers designed to get families through crises is that families often don’t have networks of relatives and friends they can rely on to keep them out of such turmoil in the first place. Much as many households now outsource work that they once would have done themselves — by, e.g., eating out and hiring house-cleaning services — the expansion of the welfare state is about outsourcing the responsibility to plan ahead; to form strong, lasting relationships; and, increasingly, to raise children who become self-reliant, capable adults.
Many conservatives believe that these phenomena are related — that as government takes on responsibilities that were once borne by families and communities, families and communities grow commensurately weaker, an argument that was made most powerfully by the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet in his 1953 book The Quest for Community. Whatever the cause, it is undeniable that American families and communities have become weak, particularly among the poor.
This change is not limited to the United States. During a recent visit to South Korea, I was struck by the extent and the speed of its social transformation. South Korea is universally recognized as a great economic success story, having vaulted from being one of the world’s poorest, most violence-scarred societies to being one of its most prosperous and educated. Yet it has also experienced a surge in family disruption. For example, the number of single-parent households increased from 390,000 in 1995 to over 1 million in 2010, a time during which the total population hardly changed. And as extended kinship networks continue to break down, homelessness has increased by 17.5 percent over the last two years.
Family breakdown is not as far along in South Korea as it is in the United States, where the out-of-wedlock birthrate now stands at 41 percent and, according to the socially conservative Family Research Council, only 45 percent of teenagers are raised in intact biological families. But it is noteworthy that, despite the vast differences between these two societies — America being one of the world’s most diverse market democracies and South Korea being one of the least — there are similar social dynamics at work. A rash of suicides by older Koreans recently prompted Andrew Sullivan to argue that “capitalism destroys the very structure of the societies it enriches.”
Sullivan drew on the celebrated “cultural contradictions of capitalism” thesis that sociologist Daniel Bell introduced in The Public Interest in 1970. Bell observed that while an emphasis on self-discipline, delayed gratification, and restraint remained essential to success in a market economy, individuals in market-driven cultures had come to reject such bourgeois values. The same business enterprises that demand hard work and sobriety from their employees stimulate demand for pleasure and play in advertising their goods and services. And the abundance fostered by market-driven economic growth lends itself, in Bell’s words, to “prodigality rather than prudence.” But given that these cultural factors influence all individuals in modern, or rather postmodern, societies, why have the cultural contradictions of capitalism been so much more damaging to the poor than to the rich?
In “Why Do People Become Modern? A Darwinian Explanation,” an essay published in 2009, the biologists Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson offer a useful framework. In premodern societies, virtually all social networks are kin-based. Individuals have an interest in encouraging close relatives to reproduce, as relatives share some portion of their genetic inheritance, and so norms and values geared toward producing offspring early and often dominate those that promote the pursuit of other life goals. But as individuals transition from kin-based social networks to non-kin-based social networks in which most of the people who shape and influence their lives don’t necessarily have an interest in their reproductive success, different norms and values come to the fore.
If Newson and Richerson are right, we should expect that individuals in societies experiencing rapid economic growth and urbanization will shift from wanting large families and taking their obligations to extended family members very seriously to prioritizing self-improvement and wanting much smaller families. The advent of reliable birth control, the fact that adults are less likely to depend on children as a source of income and old-age support, and the fact that we have more time and resources to pursue self-improvement have all contributed to this shift.
And this is roughly what has been happening around the world, from the U.S. to South Korea to the emerging societies of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Yet the weakening of kin-based social networks will unfold differently in different social classes. Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has urged policymakers to focus on what he calls “mobility inequality,” i.e., the fact that more-skilled workers are far likelier to be geographically mobile than less-skilled workers. Moretti argues that if less-skilled workers were more able or more willing to move, income differences might shrink as the less-skilled settled in higher-productivity regions where firms pay higher wages. To this end, he calls for reforming unemployment insurance and pursuing other measures to facilitate geographic mobility. One could say that Moretti wants less-skilled workers to become as “modern” as skilled workers, who are more likely to choose their home on the basis of economic opportunity and high-quality amenities than from a sense of inherited obligation.
The problem, however, is that while some people are relatively good at adapting to new environments and forming new attachments, others need stability and durable relationships. A knowledge-intensive economy that privileges the most footloose, rootless individuals will necessarily be challenging for those who aren’t suited to a life of constant change. Indeed, this difference in proclivities can occur within families, creating additional strains.
Historically, extended kinship groups managed internal tensions out of necessity, as family members had no choice but to rely on one another. Today, family members increasingly have the option to go their separate ways, culturally and geographically. Yet the household formations that result — the small families, the single adults living alone — are far more vulnerable to economic and social disruption. To be as productive as we can be, we have to uproot ourselves. But in doing so, we reduce the number of people we can rely on in a time of crisis.
And this ongoing erosion of stable, solid attachments may well contribute to mental illness, substance abuse, and other maladies that can drag down middle-income families or keep low-income families from ever achieving some modicum of economic self-reliance. Efforts to expand the welfare state are designed to mitigate some of the damage that flows from these phenomena. It is not clear, however, that they can address the root cause.
One view, common among social scientists who study the evolution of family life, is that we should want all Americans to live like the college-educated minority, who appear to have reconciled the demands of mobility and adaptability in a knowledge-intensive economy with the need for strong attachments. This is one of the implicit motivations behind expanding access to higher education, a project that in recent years has yielded massive increases in student-loan debt but only modest increases in college-completion rates.
Another answer is that we ought to find ways to foster a more rooted and stable society, one in which extended kinship groups can flourish. This won’t be easy, and it can’t be accomplished solely via the instruments of law or policy. It will also require a renewed focus on the moral foundations of our economy. While left-liberals champion measures such as increased social transfers and greater public-education spending, conservatives might champion measures such as an increase in the child tax credit and more investment in programs designed to encourage work and, if necessary, enforce work requirements. The virtue of the latter approach is not that it is cheaper, because the truth is that it might be very expensive. Rather, it is that the latter approach has the potential to help all Americans take responsibility for their own lives and their own families.