The Spectacle Blog

Unworkable Reasoning

By on 3.7.07 | 1:40PM

Harold Meyerson claims that the decline of the working class family is the fault of conservatives, and traces its true origins not to the '60s but the Reagan '80s:

Such was not the case for working-class Americans. Over the past 35 years, the massive changes in the U.S. economy have largely condemned American workers to lives of economic insecurity. No longer can the worker count on a steady job for a single employer who provides a paycheck and health and retirement benefits, too. Over the past three decades, workers' individual annual income fluctuations have consistently increased, while their aggregate income has stagnated. In the brave new economy of outsourced jobs and short-term gigs and on-again, off-again health coverage, American workers cannot rationally plan their economic futures. And with each passing year, as their level of economic security declines, so does their entry into marriage.

There are numerous problems with that argument, not the least of which is that Meyerson buys into the myth about stagnating incomes. First, if the decline in economic security is responsible for the decline of marriage, shouldn't we also see a decline in rearing children? After all, children are an economic burden far more than marriage is. Yet look at this chart. The number of people who are probably least financially able to have children--single women--has increased over that time. The biggest jump came among those whose financial prospects are the bleakest, women who never finished high school.

And if you look carefully, percentage-wise the increase was largest during the 1960s and 1970s. And the lowest increase came in the 1990s. That does not correspond to Meyerson's narrative of economic insecurity brought on by the 1980s. So, what do those dates correspond to? Could it be the adoption of AFDC (welfare) in the 1960s and its replacement with TANF (workfare) in the 1990s?

Finally, Meyerson perhaps has the cart before the horse. Maybe the economic insecurity of the working class is caused by the decline in the nuclear family, and not the other way around.

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