Can the rich cover the poor?

I have begun wondering if one result of the inequality developing in America is that the highly educated people who get paid to diagnose the country’s problems have precious little knowledge about the poor. That is, whenever they describe the poor, they tend to ascribe to them the values of the upper middle class. In their minds, the poor want to work hard, have 2.5 children, a house with a white picket fence, drink wine with their book club friends, etc. My questions have been prompted by Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” which suggests that many poor Americans have different values than their richer countrymen.

I was thinking about that while reading a Sunday Review piece in today’s Times on modern marriage. About 90 percent of it charted broad changes in marriage over time. The basic idea was that poor, middle and rich – we were all governed by these general trends. Briefly, since the 1960s we have become much more selfish about marriage looking it as a means of personal fulfillment rather than a partnership.

At the end, we get this:

“Though this is not a specifically socioeconomic phenomenon, it does have a socioeconomic dimension. One of the most disturbing facts about American marriage today is that while divorce increased at similar rates for the wealthy and the poor in the 1960s and ’70s, those rates diverged sharply starting around 1980. According to the sociologist Steven P. Martin, among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference.

“The problem is not that poor people fail to appreciate the importance of marriage, nor is it that poor and wealthy Americans differ in which factors they believe are important in a good marriage. The problem is that the same trends that have exacerbated inequality since 1980 — unemployment, juggling multiple jobs and so on — have also made it increasingly difficult for less wealthy Americans to invest the time and other resources needed to sustain a strong marital bond.”

I drew three things from this. First, here was an entire piece about marriage that didn’t get to the startling news until the end. You can bet that if the numbers were reversed and the rich were far more likely to get divorced, that stat would have been in the lede.

Second, is the assumption that the poor want exactly the same things from marriage that the better off do. This seems logical – why shouldn’t they want all the good things I do? But I would love to see some evidence. These are scholars, after all! Is it possible that the life experience of many of the poor has led them to see marriage differently?

Third, I love the conflation of unemployment and juggling many jobs. In my experience these facts often produce very different results. People who are working many jobs are not bone tired and unable to meet their commitments but highly effective people who are far more likely to find the time to invest in their relationships – and help their kids with their homework – than the chronically unemployed. I don’t have stats to back that up and maybe I’m wrong. But lumping all poor people together doesn’t seem right.

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