Patheos Blog

The Greatest of All Inequalities

 

Published by Michael Novak at Patheos.com on March 24, 2015

In the United States today, an immense amount of research shows that the greatest of all inequalities faced by Americans lies in the marital structure of the home in which they grow up. Robert Fogel may have been the first one to notice it, but recent studies by Charles Murray, Brad Wilcox, Mary Eberstadt, and Mitch Pearlstein, among others, overwhelm older complacencies.

Professor Catherine Pakaluk conveniently summarizes Fogel’s point: “In The Fourth Great Awakening, Fogel argues that the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the 21st century lies in the gradient of ‘spiritual capital’ which is not distributed equally among social classes. Spiritual capital means for Fogel values, ethics, and norms for interacting, which turn out to be enormously helpful for long term endeavors (like career preparation, job perseverance, savings, relationship stability, etc.).”

A conversation I had with a twenty-something Italian American lad on Long Island some years ago taught me a ton about spiritual capital. He had just opened a pizza restaurant along the beach where we lived, near Oyster Bay. When we paid a visit, Karen asked him how he had had the nerve to put up a new pizza place when there were already four along the strip near us.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ve already got a permit to add on another big room. My dad owned ten restaurants, I been doin’ inventory since I was nine years old. I know everything about restaurants you need to know. Before I hit forty, I want to own more than ten of them on my own. Then retire early.”

I marveled at the skills he had in his bones, his fingertips, the back of his head. I wouldn’t know how to do any of the practical things he’d have to do to make all this work. He was brought up in it.

Well, it’s the same with kids who have been raised in homes where they learn to write out short words with alphabet magnets on the refrigerator by the time they are three, and are reading children’s picture books to themselves by the time they are five. Before they even get to kindergarten they are far ahead of most of their future classmates.

One of the greatest inequalities among children is how many books are found in their homes. The years of education completed by their parents. The careers their older family has experience in, and can introduce them to. Also the amount of time their fathers spend with them, giving them not only advice and counsel, but teaching them skills and introducing them to new adventures. Not to mention giving them a swift swat on the bottom when they get too far out of line.

Whether one is brought up in a stable environment by an attentive and married mother and father makes a huge difference for one’s advantages and disadvantages in life. The empirical evidence on how much home structure affects lifetime advancement is overwhelmingly strong.

Charles Murray, for one, draws in painful detail the tremendous transformation in family structure that the United States has already undergone. And, as he shows, the problem is not one that breaks down along racial lines. Whites as clearly as any group are “coming apart” along the axis of marriage.

Sadly, owing to this cultural shift even larger inequalities of incomes and career outcomes are now virtually inevitable.

 

Special thanks to Bridget Littleton and Elizabeth Shaw for research links

 

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