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  • "The class divide is not just about family structure, or the economy, or community—it’s about all three." Tweet This
  • "When expressive individualism dominates our understanding of love, economic woes take a greater toll on marriage." Tweet This

In a previous post, I noted some research showing that working class young adults are less likely than their more educated peers to trust other people. This trust deficit is related to the growing class divide that Charles Murray and others have documented.

In seeking to understand how the class divide developed, most commentators point to three general candidates: the decline of unionized, well-paid blue-collar jobs; the decline of marriage and the traditional two-parent family; and the isolation of formerly close-knit communities in which, as my ninety-plus-year-old neighbor put it, “We knew everybody and their dogs.”

Most commentators agree that the current situation has something to do with a mix of all three factors. Robert Putnam emphasizes that it’s not a “red” or “blue” problem, but a “purple” problem. In other words, it’s not just about family structure, or the economy, or community—it’s about all of them.

But while acknowledging the salience of all these factors, some commentators argue that the driving factor is economic. For instance, Putnam, in a forum with Charles Murray, suggested the following:

Part of the explanation is the trend that Charles Murray has highlighted, the collapse of the white working class family. But where did that come from?…Charles is a little agnostic on that question, but his kind of preferred explanation for this collapse of the white working class family in the last quarter century is the social welfare reforms of the great society. But in Port Clinton that story just doesn’t sound nearly as plausible as the much more obvious story: three decades of vanishing jobs and economic insecurity for the bottom half of the U.S. labor force.

But in Maytown, the small town where I live in southwestern Ohio, it is not so obvious that vanishing jobs and economic insecurity are the primary cause of the working class’s decline. Why?

During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Maytown received an influx of migrants from Appalachian areas, as subsistence farmers and struggling miners went North in search of factory jobs. Many of these migrants came from very poor areas—as my eighty-something migrant neighbor put it, “We weren’t just fairly poor, we were poor as hell!”

Still, many of the migrants insist that though they were poor by contemporary standards, they didn’t know any better. When I asked another neighbor couple if they were poor growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, Alice, 80, seemed to take offense at my question. “Well, I never thought about me being poor….”

‘You didn’t shut your door at night. People just went to bed with their doors unlocked, because nobody ever bothered anything.’

“We was probably considered poor but we didn’t know it,” suggested Elmer, her husband of fifty years, a retired paper mill union worker. Trying to help me understand, Elmer said he never had any hunger other than “normal hunger,” and they always had a place to sleep. Alice said they grew all their food, and fondly remembers neighbors gathering for “stir offs” to make molasses.

“And neighbors,” Alice added, “Good people. We lived around good people…. I mean, people got along. We left our doors open. We went to bed at night, believe you or not, with the windows open, no screen, it was just in there. You didn’t shut your door at night. People just went to bed with their doors unlocked, because nobody ever bothered anything.”

Divorce and unwed childbearing were also extremely frowned upon, Alice says. “Families were close,” many migrants say.

These are only anecdotal observations (subject to nostalgia, of course), but they’re supported by ethnographic research. In the early 1940s, a Harvard Ph.D. student, James S. Brown, lived in a rural and poor Eastern Kentucky community he called “Beech Creek”—an area home to many of Maytown’s migrants. Despite their poverty, he found that “virtually everyone in the Beech Creek area married, and the few who remained single were looked on as odd and unusual.” Although “marriage was the most important step in the whole cycle from birth to death,” couples married with little fanfare or ceremony. (My wife’s grandparents from rural Iowa tell us the same thing about the weddings they remember growing up.)

Often, a justice of the peace married a couple, and sometimes a church minister. Some couples even “slipped off” and got married, only asking a few friends or convenient bystanders to witness the marriage. After the couple married, it was common for the couple to have an “infare supper” at the groom’s home. Brown also found that while there was some evidence for a sexual double standard, “Marital fidelity, along with complete devotion to the welfare of their children, was regarded [by spouses] as the main obligation in life.”

The day-to-day family and community life Brown describes reminds me somewhat of the Amish community in which I was born. The husband directed the farm work; the housewife was in charge of canning, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and taking care of their many children. Newly married couples often lived with parents until they could afford their own property. Old people remained vital to families, and an old father was the accepted leader and “the symbol of the group’s existence as a cohesive, valid social entity.” Families and neighbors visited frequently, though with the exception of church meetings there was little formal community activity. But they shared a common history: “They all knew whose grandparents had been good friends or bitter enemies; they all knew when somebody had been ‘burned out’ and what folks in the neighborhood had done to help.”

One of the striking things about Brown’s portrait is how poverty co-existed with family cohesiveness and the expectation of marriage. When these poor rural individuals and families migrated North during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, they brought with them their family cohesiveness. But while Elmer and Alice grew up poor, got married, and recently celebrated their golden anniversary, both of their children—raised in relatively more affluent Ohio—are divorced.

Poverty co-existed with family cohesiveness and the expectation of marriage.

Putnam’s response to Murray—that the story of family collapse starts with vanishing jobs and economic insecurity—doesn’t make sense of Elmer and Alice’s family. Vanishing jobs and economic insecurity defined Elmer and Alice’s life in Appalachia. And greater access to jobs and comparative economic security defined their children’s lives in Ohio—yet it was their children’s marriages that ended in divorce.

My own view is that vanishing jobs and economic insecurity in places like Putnam’s hometown of Port Clinton contributed to the collapse of marriage and the two-parent family and the growing class divide—but they had this effect only because of the seismic cultural shift towards expressive individualism that Robert Bellah and colleagues documented in Habits of the Heart. In an atmosphere of expressive individualism, Bellah and colleagues observe, “Americans tend to assume that feelings define love, and that permanent commitment can come only from having the proper clarity, honesty, and openness about one’s feelings.” This is a “therapeutic attitude,” which “begins with the self, rather than with a set of external obligations.”

Elmer and Alice grew up with a very different attitude about love and marriage. “Well, I tell you what, when I got married, it was for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” Alice announced firmly when I asked her what was on her mind when she got married. “That’s what was on my mind—till death do you part!” Alice has been unhappy at times in her marriage—though she says Elmer is a “good moral man,” she wishes that he would communicate with her more—but she says divorce was never an option for her. Why? Because of the external obligation she assumed upon marrying.

However, when expressive individualism dominates how people understand love and commitment, vanishing jobs and economic insecurity appear to take a greater toll on marriages than they did on the dirt-poor Appalachian married couples. With obligations of lifelong love vulnerable to the new therapeutic ethos, economic stressors are enough to fatally undermine the stability of a romantic relationship or a marriage—even though breakups and divorce rarely improve people’s financial situations.

Children born into this situation face two sets of obstacles to success later in life: one from their low-income background, the other from experiencing their parents’ breakup or divorce. And thus a negative cycle sets in and reinforces the economic divide. (I should note that Bellah and colleagues would probably reject my characterization of how expressive individualism exacerbates inequality. More on that in a later post.)

But even if the above account is correct, what does it mean for an 18-year-old Port Clinton young woman, scarred and looking for trust? Or for 26-year-old Kelly, who is all but divorced and who derides marriage as “just a piece of paper”? And what about their children? How can we help them to build trust?

In a follow-up post, I will address why I think responding to the powerful truth claims of expressive individualism is at least as crucial to rebuilding trust among the working class as more concrete public policies.