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  • The depressed state of much of working-class America is about more than money. It’s also about the fragility of family and community life in working-class enclaves. Tweet This
  • We suggest four steps to renew working-class family life: strengthen the underpinnings of blue-collar communities, reform social welfare policy, align working conditions with family needs, and strengthen families and civil society. Tweet This

Editor’s NoteShortly after the 2016 election, a group of scholars from Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and the Brookings Institution came together to convene a working group aimed at better understanding the working class and finding bipartisan policy solutions to help this often-overlooked segment of America. They put together a group of scholars from both the left and the right who “spent a year considering the causes of working-class distress and debating policy solutions.” Members of the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Class Study Group include: Oren CassRobert DoarKenneth A. DodgeWilliam A. GalstonRon HaskinsTamar JacobyAnne KimLawrence M. MeadBruce ReedIsabel V. SawhillRyan StreeterAbel Valenzuela, and W. Bradford Wilcox

Together, these scholars produced a set of policy recommendations released today in a report titled, Work, Skills, and Community: Restoring Opportunity for the Working Class. The following essay is adapted from the “Family and Community” section of the full report from the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Class Study Group.

Much of working-class America feels left out, and not just because real wages are down since the 1970s, too many jobs have been shipped to China or men’s labor force participation is low. The depressed state of much of working-class America is about more than money. It’s also about the fragility of family and community life in working-class enclaves. Some of this fragility adversely affects worker productivity, and some work conditions take a toll on family and community, making them even more fragile. 

Too many working-class Americans are “bowling alone,” in political scientist Robert Putnam’s famous phrase—disengaged from local community life and civic organizations, whether the Parent-Teacher Association, their neighborhood church, the Pipefitters Local 120 or the VFW. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the share of working-class men and women aged 25 to 60 who were involved in some kind of secular civic activity fell from 71 percent to 52 percent. Likewise, the share of working-class adults aged 25 to 60 who attended church regularly—nearly every week or more—fell from 40 to 28 percent.

Similar trends have played out among children and adolescents. Almost one-third of high school seniors with well-educated parents regularly attend religious services, whereas only about 20 percent of high school seniors with less-educated parents attend regularly. And the share of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds involved in school-based extracurricular activities has fallen by more than 10 percentage points in the same time period, even as involvement has remained largely constant and high among children from upper socioeconomic backgrounds. These are but some indicators of the ways in which the fabric of communal and civic life is unraveling in many working-class communities. 

The fraying of civic and communal life hurts individuals. Putnam has found that high levels of social capital—defined as civic and community engagement, as well as social trust—are especially important “in keeping teenagers from dropping out of school, hanging out on the streets and having babies out of wedlock.” Men and women who are not integrated into local communities are less likely to flourish emotionally, socially and civically. They suffer from suicide, depression and substance abuse at higher rates; they are less likely to trust their neighbors; and they are less likely to vote. Indeed, one reason that deaths related to suicide or substance abuse are climbing among white working-class Americans seems to be that they are less engaged in their communities than they were in previous decades. In some cases, then, social isolation can be downright deadly. 

The breakdown of communal life also has consequences for society. Along with substance abuse, crime rates are also higher in communities where men and women are less civically engaged. Economic mobility for lower-income children is worse in places where community life is weak. Trust tends to be lower and engagement in the political process more limited.

Moreover, in Putnam’s words, “For working-class Americans, voluntary associations and churches offer the best opportunities for civic skill building.” This is where many people give their first presentation or learn to run a meeting, among other skills that can redound to the benefit of their local community and political life. An anemic communal life, then, erodes the basis for a robust economy and strong democracy in working-class communities. 

A similar story holds true for working-class families. Over the last half-century, stable, married families have lost ground among working-class Americans. In the 1970s, most working-class men and women were stably married, defined as living in their first marriage. Today, a majority of working-class adults ages 18–55 are not married at all, let alone in stable marriages. Moreover, only about half of children raised in working-class homes will be raised into adolescence by stably married parents. By contrast, almost three-quarters of children raised in college-educated and affluent homes will be raised by their own married parents as they reach adolescence.

This retreat from marriage in working-class America affects men, women, and especially children. Men and women who are not stably married have lower levels of household income, greater income insecurity, and worse financial prospects as they head toward retirement. They are also more likely to face emotional problems and substance abuse and to end up committing suicide.

The effects on working-class children are if anything more troubling. To be sure, many children raised outside of an intact, married family turn out fine, and some children raised in married families fare poorly, especially if their parents are inattentive, authoritarian or caught in highly conflicted marriages. But as the Saguaro Seminar working group notes, “[Children] who grow up in stable families with effective parents reap numerous advantages throughout their lives.”

On average, children in stable, married families get more financial support, consistent attention affection and discipline from their parents, and they are less likely to have their social networks dislodged by frequent moves. Children who experience instability or live with a single parent, in contrast, are more likely to flounder in school, have social-emotional problems and end up idle or underemployed as young adults. The increasing number of working-class children who grow up outside of marriage are also at greater risk of poverty and of dropping out of high school as they transition into adulthood.

The weakness of family life in many working-class communities also exacts a social toll. Violent crime is higher in communities where families are more fragile, as are suicide and other deaths of despair. The American Dream—as measured by the odds that children raised in lower-income families will make it into the upper class as adults—is less attainable in communities where single-parent families predominate. And what Case and Deaton call the “pathologies” now afflicting many working-class Americans appear to “move in tandem with other social dysfunctions, including the decline of marriage, social isolation and detachment from the labor force.”

What is to be done to address the fragility of working-class families and communities? Our group suggests four steps: strengthen the underpinnings of blue-collar communities, reform social welfare policy, align working conditions with family needs, and strengthen families and civil society. In this excerpt, we discuss three of those four steps.

The American Dream—as measured by the odds that children raised in lower-income families will make it into the upper class as adults—is less attainable in communities where single-parent families predominate.

 Social Welfare Policy

Work and marriage are pillars of prosperity, economic security, and upward mobility. Americans who remain employed full-time—or married to someone employed full-time—and stably married are much more likely to avoid spells of poverty or economic insecurity and to see their incomes rise over time. Yet today, many means-tested social welfare policies do little to promote work or marriage. 

Encouraging marriage. Many of the nation’s largest means-tested programs, including Medicaid and food stamps, penalize marriage among households that receive benefits. The disincentives are most pronounced for working-class families—the second earnings quintile rather than the poorest. One study found that 60 percent of couples with children two years old and younger whose combined income falls between the 20th and 40th percentiles face a reduction or elimination in their ability to access SNAP or Medicaid if they marry and report their combined income. Another recent study found that some working-class families could lose as much as 32 percent of their combined household income because of marriage penalties.

Programs differ, the rules are complex, and in some situations and some programs, working-class families can earn a bonus for marrying. The earned income tax credit (EITC), for example, rewards couples with children if at least one partner is working but the couple’s combined income is low—$20,000 or less. But far more often, marrying means a loss of income. 

Do marriage penalties matter? Most studies suggest they play a modest role in discouraging marriage. One study found that couples with young children in the second and third earning quintiles were about two to four percentage points less likely to marry if they faced a marriage penalty in Medicaid or food stamps. Another study found that single mothers who would lose EITC benefits upon marrying are 2.5 percentage points less likely to marry and 2.5 percentage points more likely to cohabit instead, compared to single mothers whose choices are unaffected by the EITC. Another qualitative study of EITC marriage penalties found no effects.

In light of these findings—and the potentially large price tag for addressing marriage penalties— our group recommends an experimental approach. Federal demonstration programs and state agencies could randomly assign jurisdictions and give them the opportunity to eliminate or minimize penalties—especially for families with children under the age of five. Some states already do this. Minnesota recently passed legislation that allows low-income parents on cash welfare who marry to avoid losing benefits during the first 12 months after marriage. Our group believes experimentation of this kind should be expanded—applied to a range of means-tested programs and combined with a clear public message that marriage will not lead to lost benefits for at least the first two years a couple is together. Finally, going forward, when federal policymakers reauthorize or reform social welfare policies, they should consider raising eligibility thresholds for married couples with children under five so as to minimize the marriage penalty for working-class families. 

Family-Friendly Working Conditions 

Many Americans struggle to reconcile the demands of work and family, but the challenges are often especially onerous for working-class families. 

Qualitative research suggests that many service-sector jobs do not give workers the flexibility to care adequately for their children or elderly parents. Latchkey children are left alone after school hours and on weekends, increasing risk for emergencies that could qualify as child neglect. Constraints at work keep parents from responding to emergencies such as picking up a sick child from school or even telephoning their child after school. Employer demands prevent some parents from scheduling events as important as weddings.

Nonstandard work hours, inflexible work policies and unsupportive managers impose high levels of stress on working-class men, women, and families. A growing body of research using mothers’ daily diary records shows that nighttime shifts bring acute family stress, souring parents’ moods and leading to poor parenting behavior, and this, in turn, affects the behavior of their children the next day.

Most resident parents in most American families work or seek employment outside the home. In some 37 percent of all families, one parent works non- standard hours—night shifts or “on call” work hours with no advanced notice—and the figure is higher among working-class families. The need to work causes many parents to accept substandard working conditions. In other cases, the stresses lead them to leave the labor force, or fail to enter it, with the financial strain that entails. This is bad for families and for employers, who face increased employee dissatisfaction, poor attendance, and high turnover. 

In the past, issues of this kind were addressed by labor unions bargaining on behalf of workers and their families. Today, instead, our group proposes a combination of legislative reform and voluntary corporate action, including the following. 

Improved parental leave. First, we recommend increased paid and allowable unpaid parental leave to bring American practice into line with the rest of the developed world. The United States is the only high-income nation in the world without a paid parental leave law. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and applies to only 60 percent of the workforce. According to the Department of Labor, only 12 percent of U.S. private-sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. The working class is most adversely affected by these inadequate leave policies because of its pressing need to work. 

Our group recommends amending FMLA to provide eight weeks of paid parental leave for qualifying workers. The benefit should replace 70 percent of the worker’s wages, capped at $600 per week. We do not recommend amending other provisions of FMLA beyond parental leave; we would make no changes to medical leave or time off for family care. All new parents should be eligible, not merely those currently covered by FMLA. We estimate the annual cost at between $3 billion and $11 billion. And we propose financing it with a portion of the new revenue we suggest raising in chapter III by expanding the number of families that pay estate taxes, limiting tax exemptions available to better-off households or raising minimum taxes for corporations that rely on tax havens. 

We also recommend increasing the number of allowable weeks of unpaid parental leave from 12 to 40. This benefit should apply only to employees who are currently covered by FMLA. 

Voluntary corporate action. Creating better conditions for working-class families cannot be left to government alone. Particularly in the wake of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and its significant reduction of the corporate income tax rate, our group believes businesses have a responsibility to create a better environment for families by strengthening parental, family and medical leave and enabling employees and managers to coordinate work schedules in ways that minimize the burden they place on workers’ families. 

Policies and practices that would strengthen working-class families—and improve worker retention and productivity—include but are not limited to regular work hours, bans on unwanted mandatory overtime and weekend work hours unless preapproved, flexible work hours, job sharing, flexibility that allows sick time to be used for a sick child, on-site child care, increased paid and unpaid parental leave and expansion of health care benefits for workers’ families. It’s time for corporations to step up voluntarily to support their workers in these expanded ways. 

A family impact statement for every company. Over time, we believe the free market will reward family-friendly corporations with higher-quality job applicants, higher worker productivity and less turn- over. In the short term, however, many job applicants and workers are unaware of local employers’ policies and the variation across companies. We propose to help workers select employers that offer the most family-friendly working conditions by encouraging companies to release a voluntary annual “family impact statement” detailing their policies for parents and children. 

One way to spur companies to release this information would be with modest government funding for an independent nonprofit that develops a check-list of employer best practices and makes companies’ annual statements available to the public. The list of items to be reported could be determined by a non- partisan board made up of labor economists, business owners, parents, civic leaders, and child development experts. Employers’ responses could be summarized in ratings and rankings by the nonprofit. Reports should be published and made available to workers and job applicants. We propose that the federal government allocate resources to support the reporting and publishing process and encourage employers to comply—$50 million annually. 

Ignoring marriage doesn’t make sense for at least one key reason: the stability it offers many couples. With marriage comes commitment, greater legal and social support, and ritualized entry into the responsibilities of adult life.

Families and Civil Society

Strengthening the underpinnings of blue-collar communities, using social policy to help beneficiaries enter or return to the workforce, family-friendly workplaces: all of this will help to improve the quality of life in working-class families and communities. But our group also believes that more direct supports are needed—initiatives that focus more intentionally on behavior and values. 

The success sequence. Economic, social, and political measures will not be enough alone to renew the social fabric of working-class America. They are necessary, to be sure, but probably not sufficient. One recent study found, for instance, that communities that saw improved job opportunities and increased employment as a result of the fracking boom did not see a subsequent increase in marriage rates.

Accordingly, many members of our group believe we must confront cultural and communal obstacles head on. What’s needed are conscious, programmatic efforts to change attitudes and strengthen values that undergird family and civil society. Here, we take a page from movements to address drunk driving, same-sex marriage, and teenage pregnancy. In all three cases, educators, civic leaders, journalists, and popular culture came together to support social change with public service announcements, educational curricula, compelling television shows and news coverage that lent cultural support to changing norms and behavior.

Our group encourages civil society to come together in a similar way to take two steps for working-class families and communities—and other Americans. The first step addresses individuals directly; the second works through civic organizations. 

First, adolescents and young adults from working-class communities should be encouraged to follow a variant of what Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have called the “success sequence”: education first, then marriage, then children. Today, given the changing character of the economy, we believe the success sequence should entail three steps: 

  1. Get an education that prepares you for a decent-paying job by completing a four-year college degree or obtaining an occupational credential. 
  2. Start working full-time by the time you have reached your early twenties. 
  3. Marry before having children. 

Young adults who follow this sequence are much more likely to avoid poverty and to reach the middle class as they move into their thirties. One recent study found that 97 percent of millennials who followed all three steps had escaped or avoided poverty by the time they reached ages 28 to 34, and 86 percent had reached the middle or upper end of the income distribution.

Some skeptics question the third step of the sequence, and there is little disagreement across the ideological spectrum that education and full-time work are closely tied to economic security and upward mobility. But ignoring marriage doesn’t make sense for at least one key reason: the stability it offers many couples. With marriage comes commitment, greater legal and social support, and ritualized entry into the responsibilities of adult life. Certainly, it is more stable than the relationship alternatives. Young adults who have a child outside of marriage, including in a cohabiting relationship, are at least twice as likely to break up, even after controlling for a range of background factors, with the mother usually left to raise the child alone and the father saddled with child-support obligations. Neither of these paths is conducive to avoiding poverty or realizing the American Dream. 

One way to increase the number of children born to two people who are committed to each other and ready to be parents—typically, in marriage—is to reduce the number of early, unplanned pregnancies. Although teen pregnancies have declined sharply, half of all pregnancies in the US are still unplanned, and the rate of unplanned pregnancy is far higher for working-class women. 

Some members of our group believe the best way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and foster strong relationships among young adults is to encourage them to reserve sex for marriage. Most of the group, recognizing the prevalence of premarital sex, recommends that contraception be made available at an affordable cost to all women seeking to prevent a pregnancy. In Colorado, where this recommendation has been successfully implemented, unplanned pregnancies, abortion rates, and state costs for Medicaid and other social programs have fallen dramatically.

Second, our group believes that philanthropists, foundations and civic and religious organizations should work in a more targeted way to strengthen marriage and families in local communities. Two promising initiatives that adopt this approach are First Things First in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Culture of Freedom Initiative (COFI) in Jacksonville, Florida. COFI has reached more than 30,000 people with in-person family and religious programming and generated more than 20 million internet impressions on family-related themes. Since 2016, the divorce rate has fallen 28 percent in surrounding Duval County, a decline much larger than the drop during this period in other Florida counties or the nation. More initiatives like this are needed to serve families in communities across the nation. 

Our group also believes that civic organizations, local and national, should be more intentional about including working-class Americans in their activities. American religion is a prime example of the problem. Religious attendance by young adults has dropped off much more among working-class Americans than in the upper-middle class. But religious groups— evangelical Protestant, Catholic and Jewish—devote far more resources to targeting young people who attend four-year colleges than they devote to reaching those who are not in college. This pattern holds across a broad array of secular and religious nonprofit and civic organizations—from the Nature Conservancy and Parent-Teacher Associations to religious groups like FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and Cru. Far too many devote the lion’s share of their attention to the poor or to more educated, affluent Americans—anyone but the working class. This must stop. 

Nonprofit and civic organizations should address their failure to connect with working-class Americans. They should develop programmatic efforts that target working-class adults and families. They should seek out leaders with working-class backgrounds and make sure their style and messages speak to the sensibilities of working-class men and women. In the same vein, the nation’s schools should work to eliminate fees for extracurricular activities, including sports, so that working-class young people are not excluded.

No one in our group thinks it will be easy to strengthen the culture of family or the social fabric in working-class communities. It doesn’t help that good jobs are often lacking, popular culture often seems directly at odds with the habits of mind conducive to family and community, and abundant electronic entertainment distracts all of us from in-person relationships. Still, our group is convinced that we must take on this challenge if we wish to improve the economic, social and emotional lives of men, women, and children in working-class communities.

Download the full report, Work, Skills, and Community: Restoring Opportunity for the Working Class, or visit the Opportunity America website for more information. Additional authors include: Oren CassRobert DoarKenneth A. DodgeWilliam A. GalstonRon HaskinsTamar JacobyAnne KimLawrence M. MeadBruce ReedIsabel V. SawhillRyan Streeter, and Abel Valenzuela.