Mr. Kristof takes a look at “The White Underclass” and says we need a national conversation about the dimensions of poverty or a chunk of working-class America could be calcified into an underclass. In “Tales From the Kitchen Table” Ms. Collins says the issue of covering contraceptives in health care plans has Catholic bishops in an uproar. Let’s try to talk through this in a calm, measured manner. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Persistent poverty is America’s great moral challenge, but it’s far more than that.
As a practical matter, we can’t solve educational problems, health care costs, government spending or economic competitiveness so long as a chunk of our population is locked in an underclass. Historically, “underclass” has often been considered to be a euphemism for race, but increasingly it includes elements of the white working class as well.
That’s the backdrop for the uproar over Charles Murray’s latest book, “Coming Apart.” Murray critically examines family breakdown among working-class whites and the decline in what he sees as traditional values of diligence.
Liberals have mostly denounced the book, and I, too, disagree with important parts of it. But he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers.
My touchstone is my beloved hometown of Yamhill, Ore., population about 925 on a good day. We Americans think of our rural American heartland as a lovely pastoral backdrop, but these days some marginally employed white families in places like Yamhill seem to be replicating the pathologies that have devastated many African-American families over the last generation or two.
One scourge has been drug abuse. In rural America, it’s not heroin but methamphetamine; it has shattered lives in Yamhill and left many with criminal records that make it harder to find good jobs. With parents in jail, kids are raised on the fly.
Then there’s the eclipse of traditional family patterns. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.
Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).
One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”
Jobs are also critical as a pathway out of poverty, and Murray is correct in noting that it is troubling that growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force. The proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are “out of the labor force” has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a famous report warning of a crisis in African-American family structures, and many liberals at the time accused him of something close to racism. In retrospect, Moynihan was right to sound the alarms.
Today, I fear we’re facing a crisis in which a chunk of working-class America risks being calcified into an underclass, marked by drugs, despair, family decline, high incarceration rates and a diminishing role of jobs and education as escalators of upward mobility. We need a national conversation about these dimensions of poverty, and maybe Murray can help trigger it. I fear that liberals are too quick to think of inequality as basically about taxes. Yes, our tax system is a disgrace, but poverty is so much deeper and more complex than that.
Where Murray is profoundly wrong, I think, is to blame liberal social policies for the pathologies he examines. Yes, I’ve seen disability programs encourage some people to drop out of the labor force. But there were far greater forces at work, such as the decline in good union jobs.
Eighty percent of the people in my high school cohort dropped out or didn’t pursue college because it used to be possible to earn a solid living at the steel mill, the glove factory or sawmill. That’s what their parents had done. But the glove factory closed, working-class jobs collapsed and unskilled laborers found themselves competing with immigrants.
There aren’t ideal solutions, but some evidence suggests that we need more social policy, not less. Early childhood education can support kids being raised by struggling single parents. Treating drug offenders is far cheaper than incarcerating them.
A new study finds that a jobs program for newly released prison inmates left them 22 percent less likely to be convicted of another crime. This initiative, by the Center for Employment Opportunities, more than paid for itself: each $1 brought up to $3.85 in benefits.
So let’s get real. A crisis is developing in the white working class, a byproduct of growing income inequality in America. The pathologies are achingly real. But the solution isn’t finger-wagging, or averting our eyes — but opportunity.
Now here’s Ms. Collins:
This is a really old story, but let me tell you anyway.
When I was first married, my mother-in-law sat down at her kitchen table and told me about the day she went to confession and told the priest that she and her husband were using birth control. She had several young children, times were difficult — really, she could have produced a list of reasons longer than your arm.
“You’re no better than a whore on the street,” said the priest.
This was, as I said, a long time ago. It’s just an explanation of why the bishops are not the only Roman Catholics who are touchy about the issue of contraception.
These days, parish priests tend to be much less judgmental about parishioners who are on the pill — the military was not the first institution in this country to make use of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” system. “In most parishes in the United States, we don’t find them preaching about contraception,” said Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice. “And it’s not as though in the Mass you have a question-and-answer period.”
You have heard, I’m sure, that the Catholic bishops are in an uproar over an Obama administration rule that would require Catholic universities and hospitals to cover contraceptives in their health care plans. The Republican presidential candidates are roaring right behind. Mitt Romney claimed the White House was trying to “impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.”
Let’s try to work this out in a calm, measured manner. (Easy for me to say. I already got my mother-in-law story off my chest.)
Catholic doctrine prohibits women from using pills, condoms or any other form of artificial contraception. A much-quoted study by the Guttmacher Institute found that virtually all sexually active Catholic women of childbearing age have violated the rule at one point or another, and that more than two-thirds do so consistently.
Here is the bishops’ response to that factoid: “If a survey found that 98 percent of people had lied, cheated on their taxes, or had sex outside of marriage, would the government claim it can force everyone to do so?”
O.K. Moving right along.
The church is not a democracy and majority opinion really doesn’t matter. Catholic dogma holds that artificial contraception is against the law of God. The bishops have the right — a right guaranteed under the First Amendment — to preach that doctrine to the faithful. They have a right to preach it to everybody. Take out ads. Pass out leaflets. Put up billboards in the front yard.
The problem here is that they’re trying to get the government to do their work for them. They’ve lost the war at home, and they’re now demanding help from the outside.
And they don’t seem in the mood to compromise. Church leaders told The National Catholic Register that they regarded any deal that would allow them to avoid paying for contraceptives while directing their employees to other places where they could find the coverage as a nonstarter.
This new rule on contraceptive coverage is part of the health care reform law, which was designed to finally turn the United States into a country where everyone has basic health coverage. In a sane world, the government would be running the whole health care plan, the employers would be off the hook entirely and we would not be having this fight at all. But members of Congress — including many of the very same people who are howling and rending their garments over the bishops’ plight — deemed the current patchwork system untouchable.
The churches themselves don’t have to provide contraceptive coverage. Neither do organizations that are closely tied to a religion’s doctrinal mission. We are talking about places like hospitals and universities that rely heavily on government money and hire people from outside the faith.
We are arguing about whether women who do not agree with the church position, or who are often not even Catholic, should be denied health care coverage that everyone else gets because their employer has a religious objection to it. If so, what happens if an employer belongs to a religion that forbids certain types of blood transfusions? Or disapproves of any medical intervention to interfere with the working of God on the human body?
Organized religion thrives in this country, so the system we’ve worked out seems to be serving it pretty well. Religions don’t get to force their particular dogma on the larger public. The government, in return, protects the right of every religion to make its case heard.
The bishops should have at it. I wouldn’t try the argument that the priest used on my mother-in-law, but there’s always a billboard on the front lawn.