As Goes the Family ...

Those African-American social mobility numbers I mentioned earlier are depressing enough to deserve to be unpacked a little:

Forty-five percent of black children whose parents were solidly middle class in 1968 -- a stratum with a median income of $55,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars -- grew up to be among the lowest fifth of the nation's earners, with a median family income of $23,100. Only 16 percent of whites experienced similar downward mobility. At the same time, 48 percent of black children whose parents were in an economic bracket with a median family income of $41,700 sank into the lowest income group.

If you're looking for a reason to be pessimistic about the future of the American social fabric - and particularly the fabric of working-class life - in the face of a decade's worth of good news, it's right here. Why are African-Americans more likely to be downwardly-mobile than non-blacks? Probably because of two inter-related factors: The weak cultural capital afforded by the black community's disastrous family structure, which in turn reinforces the black-white wealth gap that's a legacy of slavery and segregation. Now consider that the first factor, the decline of marriage and the rise of illegitimacy, is increasingly visible in white and (especially) Hispanic America as well. This raises the possibility that what's true of African Americans today - that they have a hard time making it to prosperity and a harder time staying there - may be true of the rest of working-class America further down the road. The United States as a whole has a higher same out-of-wedlock birth rate at present - around 37 percent as of 2005 - that black America had in the 1960s, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan first sounded the alarm about family dissolution in the African-American community. If that number inches higher, or even if it stays constant, it's going to be harder and harder for working-class Americans to compete in the global economy, and harder, as a result, for them avoid stagnation and downward mobility at home.

As I said, this is a pessimist's forecast, and the pessimists' forecasts of the early 1990s were proven wrong in spite of the steadily rising white and Latino illegitimacy that has characterized the fifteen years since. But the problem is still there, and still real, even though crime and drug abuse and many other negative social indicators have gone into eclipse of late. The U.S. isn't likely to suddenly morph into Scandinavia, which has managed to maintain impressive family stability - and the social stability and economic competitiveness that comes with it - without high marriage rates. Nor are we likely - though never say never, where the U.S. economy is concerned - to enjoy another period of expansion like the Nineties boom. Enormous wealth-generation can (and seemingly did, in the last decade) cover over a variety of social ills, but it's easy to imagine the reverse happening over the next few decades, with the decline of the American family making any era of diminished expectations self-reinforcing, so that the country, as well as its working class, becomes downwardly-mobile over time. This isn't a future we should expect, by any means - but it's a possibility we should be aware of, and one that we should strive to avoid.

I should note, as well, that Reihan's post today on a politics of "infinite demands" dovetails with this pessimistic vision in interesting and not-so-obvious ways.