Gaps: Economic and Cultural

Cato’s Brink Lindsey has a piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that growing economic inequalities are, to a large extent, a function of cultural differences.

Which brings us back to the real issue: the human capital gap, and the culture gap that impedes its closure. The most obvious and heartrending cultural deficits are those that produce and perpetuate the inner-city underclass. Consider this arresting fact: While the poverty rate nationwide is 13%, only 3% of adults with full-time, year-round jobs fall below the poverty line. Poverty in America today is thus largely about failing to get and hold a job, any job.

The problem is not lack of opportunity. If it were, the country wouldn’t be a magnet for illegal immigrants. The problem is a lack of elementary self-discipline: failing to stay in school, failing to live within the law, failing to get and stay married to the mother or father of your children. The prevalence of all these pathologies reflects a dysfunctional culture that fails to invest in human capital.

Other, less acute deficits distinguish working-class culture from that of the middle and upper classes. According to sociologist Annette Lareau, working-class parents continue to follow the traditional, laissez-faire child-rearing philosophy that she calls “the accomplishment of natural growth.” But at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale, parents now engage in what she refers to as “concerted cultivation” — intensively overseeing kids’ schoolwork and stuffing their after-school hours and weekends with organized enrichment activities.

This new kind of family life is often hectic and stressful, but it inculcates in children the intellectual, organizational and networking skills needed to thrive in today’s knowledge-based economy. In other words, it makes unprecedented, heavy investments in developing children’s human capital.

In summary, Lindsey argues that although we all now have far more opportunities for a good life, some aspects of contemporary culture prevent some people from taking advantage of these opportunities. Or, as he puts it, “our productive capacity has now outstripped our cultural capacity”.

The issue of economic inequality is, of course, not unique to the United States but is often mentioned in an Australian or British context. It is even mentioned in respect to some sections of the Muslim community. For example, here in Australia, the anti-social behaviour of a minority of second-generation Lebanese youths is occasionally attributed to their feelings of disenfranchisement. However, to what extent is all this a function of the social and economic environment and to what extent is this the result of, to use Lindsey’s phrase, “a dysfunctional culture that fails to invest in human capital”?

3 comments ↓

#1 Eudaemonion on 07.10.07 at 10:34 pm

To state the blatantly obvious; Monsieur Lindsay has a point. The ‘working class’ and its lassiez faire attitude are wonderfully accomodating to the naturally curious, inclined to study and research. There is thaat freedom to go where you want, without the pressure of parents and there ‘know better’ attitude. These people are few and far in between.

Where this fails is when it concerns the less studious types, like my younger brother, who is turning out to be the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype. In these cases, the hands on approach busy body approach of the middle class parents.

I guess the ‘working class’ is social strata is where our indispensible tradies come from; where would we be without them? So fiddling with this might endanger our supply of these guys, further heightening our ’skills shortage’.

It all comes down to the image of labour being a pursuit for those who do poorly academically; a stigma of anti-intellectualism if you will. Interesting tid-bit: Hitler was quite big on the idea of glamourising labour; the ‘Socialism’ part of ‘National Socialsim’, I guess.

#2 Umm Yasmin on 07.12.07 at 1:22 pm

Methinks “culture” has just become a synonym for race.

#3 Antish on 07.12.07 at 1:33 pm

Do you? Perhaps in the US (although I doubt it – the Japanese, Korean and Chinese ‘races’ do well in the US) but not in countrties where class is openly acknowledged. The ’single parent welfare bludger’ phenomenon is surely a predominantly underclass Anglo one in Australia, for example; the ‘gangs of excitable young men’ phenomenon includes working-class men from most ‘races’ in Australia.

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