The (white) kids are alright
By Scott Sumner
This post is about Charles Murray’s book entitled Coming Apart, which I have not read. It’s a bit presumptuous for me to comment on a book merely based on book reviews. So consider this an initial inquiry, I’m looking to be better educated on these issues.
The reviewers suggest that in Coming Apart, Murray claims that well-educated affluent families are doing better and better, while lower and working class families are struggling along all sorts of socioeconomic dimensions. Furthermore, the success of the upper classes gets passed on to their children though various cultural practices related to child rearing (and perhaps genetics as well.) Reviews suggest that Robert Putnam’s new book also points to a decline in social capital, especially among the lower classes.
I presume there must be at least a bit of truth in what these guys are saying, but I’m really perplexed by the graph below, which appeared in The Economist, and is based on a Brookings Institution study:
Let’s start with the second and fourth quintiles of income at birth. There appears to be almost no difference in the distribution of future income between white kids born into what some might call the lower and upper middle class. (As an aside, in America the upper middle class actually refers to people in the top quintile, but not the top 1%. I’m following the conventional practice of interpreting the income inequality data literally.)
I find these results to be stunning. The entire middle 60 percent has pretty similar life outcomes. But that’s not really what Murray is talking about, at least based on this NYR of Books review:
But Coming Apart is also a book about class. Or more precisely, two contrasting classes of white Americans. One, a “new upper class,” includes not just the rich and powerful, since it takes in a generous 20 percent of the population. By my calculations, it starts with families earning $135,724. The other, a “new lower class,” is everyone in the bottom 30 percent. Its top income, also by my count, would be $52,057. Nor are these classes wholly economic; Murray adds educational and occupational status to give a more rounded portrayal. Thus everyone in his upper class must have completed college and hold a professional or managerial position. He explains what makes both these classes “new,” and why conventional rubrics no longer apply. No discussion is given to the remaining 50 percent, which is odd, since they are literally mid-America and cast most of the votes in presidential elections.
This is an important point, as a casual reader of these book reviews (including me at first) might assume Murray had in mind a “Two Americas” model, whereas he actually seems to have in mind a model of three or more Americas. And the data suggests the middle 60% is pretty egalitarian, at least in an intergenerational sense.
So what about the bottom 30%? The graph above doesn’t break the data into deciles, but the bottom 20% still shows a surprising amount of upward mobility, with 16% of white lower class kids rising to the top quintile, instead of 20% in a perfectly equal society. In a sense these findings conform to my casual empiricism; white America has a huge middle class and very small upper and lower classes. So why am I stunned? Because almost everyone I talk to tells me that I’m wrong, that we are becoming a nation of “Two Americas”, with a huge gap opening up between lower and upper class, even among white Americans.
Although I always thought the inequality issue was being overstated, I never imagined the data would look this equal for whites, especially among the bottom 4 quintiles. Only in the top quintile does the inequality become somewhat pronounced, but even there 10% of kids of affluent white families end up in the bottom quintile, a not insignificant figure (again 20% would represent complete equality.) How many of those rich kids would end up in the bottom quintile if life outcomes depended entirely on inherited IQ, and not at all on environmental advantages like private schools and tutors? (I suspect that Bryan Caplan is right about education.)
This all made me wonder if there is some quirk in the statistical technique that made this sort of equality almost inevitable. Perhaps, but when you switch to black Americans, you do see the sort of inequality that one might have expected (unfortunately there is too little data to report the top quintile):
I find the difference in the life outcome of bottom quintile black kids and bottom quintile white kids to be stunning. Not the fact of the difference, but the size of it.
Question for those who have read Coming Apart. Does the white data somewhat refute Murray’s claims, am I misinterpreting the data, or am I misinterpreting Murray?
One reason I’m still skeptical of the Two America’s hypothesis that you see in the popular press is that the income distribution doesn’t look like a two-humped camel. Is America really divided between an upper and lower class, or do we have a huge middle class? At a racial level I do think there is some support for the Two Americas view. Blacks and Native Americans and to some extent Hispanics really do earn much less on average than white and Asian Americans. But Murray’s book specifically focused on whites—that’s the issue I’m examining here.
Robert Putnam focuses on the declining status of America’s kids. Again, I don’t doubt that his book is full of supporting evidence. But couldn’t one find evidence in the other direction? Have test scores been rising? Is teenage motherhood now at the lowest level in all of world history? Isn’t the crime rate sharply lower?
This is from a very interesting article on Los Angeles street gangs, entitled “This is How Gangs End“:
Los Angeles gave America the modern street gang. Groups like the Crips and MS-13 have spread from coast to coast, and even abroad. But on California’s streets they have been vanishing”
Question. What sort of data do Murray and Putnam have for the claim that lower class kids are doing much more poorly?
PS. If our kids are doing better than we think, might it reflect the age-old bias that grown-ups have about the young? When I hear older people talk about the young they often seem to me to sound slightly hysterical. I think to myself (without saying this out loud) “Why are you so horrified by the sort of behavior that you and your friends used to engage in as teens and young adults?”