Let’s face it: discussing inequality is a sterile affair. Our debates on inequality often take place in the operating room of economics where the sociologist’s messy primordial goo of institutions, habits, and structures is neatly cleaned up by the economist’s sterilized instruments of medians, quintiles, and percentiles. The result is a conversation on a rendered, abstract inequality instead of a series of difficult, concrete inequalities. The current talk of inequality is neat and tidy; but it’s also unproductive.
The more interesting discussions examine particular types of inequality. And the most interesting and important discussions go one step further and try to answer where a particular inequality is just or unjust.
Andrew Cherlin’s book Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the American Working Class Family adds a welcome messiness by showing how the family—that most messy of institutions—affects inequality. In doing so, he challenges us to pay attention to inequalities in a variety of social institutions, starting with the family, but also including trade unions, businesses, schools, and states. We learn from Cherlin that these institutions are not only shaped by each other but by cultural assumptions about the nature and purpose of such institutions.
With this particular focus, Cherlin’s book opens the doors for concerned readers to ask—and start to answer—that most important question: Is America’s inequality just? Cherlin reveals our need for a framework of justice that accounts for the unique characteristics of the individuals and communities that make up our society and how they influence one another. Yet I would add that we need to have an account for how these institutions reflect deeper, even religious, assumptions about who we are as humans. The Reformed tradition of social thought has something that, placed alongside Cherlin, might help us answer that.
On Making And Breaking Collective Bargains
Cherlin tells the story of how the American working class family—Dad at work, Mom at home, kids in school—came to be: It was the product of a complex bargain made on both cultural and economic terms.
The working class family emerged in the context of “a grand bargain in the mid-twentieth century between workers and corporations —high wages and stable, long-term employment in return for hard, tedious, and sometimes dangerous work.” Ford automotive plants are a prime example of this bargain. Workers were offered high wages in exchange for the monotony of mundane work.
This economic bargain was both supported and influenced by a cultural bargain marked by disciplined work and stable marriages. Cherlin notes that the drive for high wages and stable, long-term employment was heavily influenced by cultural commitments to a particular conception of family. And labour unions took up this conception as they pursued the idea of a “family wage,” a wage which enabled the primary earner—usually a man— to provide for his family. Cherlin writes:
There had never been an era in which marriage was as dominant in adult life among whites, and there has not been one since[.] In the 1950’s, more than in any other decade, marriage was the mandatory first step into adulthood for whites, and it was commonly the first step among blacks. It was what one did prior to investing in one’s career or getting an advanced degree or having children— and for many women and some men, it was what you did before you had sex.
In effect, well-paying work supported strong working class marriages, and working class marriages supported well-paying jobs. This interdependence supported relatively equal economic status in the U.S. “The long historical view,” Cherlin notes, “demonstrates that class differences in marriage have been tied to the extent of economic inequality in America”
But today, the bargain has fallen apart. The well-paying, lower skilled jobs that fueled the rise of the working class are scarce in America today. The result is a labour market dominated by low-skilled, low paid work and high-skilled, high paid work. We have what economist David Autor calls a polarized labour market. You see it at Starbucks: highly educated, well paid tech wizards are served by those who are less educated and paid poorly.
And it’s not just the economic side of the bargain. Whereas marriage used to be the “mandatory first step” for Americans, it is now something reserved mainly for the new, educated, upper class. What happened? Cherlin notes that the 1970’s saw the flourishing of a perspective where “sexual expression and parenthood are not bound by institutional rules but rather by personal preferences.” The result is a significant increase in cohabitation and children born out of wedlock for the same group that face economic duress, those without a bachelor’s degree. On the other hand “highly educated young adults also experienced the cultural shift toward the greater acceptability [of out of wedlock births], and yet the percentage of their children living with an unmarried mother hardly increased.”
Today, America faces a polarized labour market and a polarized marriage market: those with bachelor’s degrees are often married and working in well-paying jobs while those without are increasingly unmarried, and un- or under-employed. Cherlin notes that this has produced an “interaction effect: two factors uniting to produce an effect that is larger than either could have produced alone.” So if we ask whether it is culture or economics that are leading to family breakdown, the answer is: yes.
The breakdown of these two grand bargains, says Cherlin, is “not a cultural vanguard confidently leading the way toward a postmodern family lifestyle.” Rather, those without bachelor’s degrees “are a group making constrained choices.”
And this has effects beyond the individuals and their families. “Marriage has been the traditional way in which individuals are connected to civil society.” The lack of a viable replacement for the working class family has “significant social costs: children facing instability and complexity in their home lives, and adults drift[ing] away from the institutions that historically have anchored civic life.” In other words, the decline of marriage and the labour market is not just an economic problem: it threatens the very heart of our liberal democratic order.
Cherlin’s book underscores the challenge facing those who, in the face of income inequality, wish for a silver bullet. His chapter entitled “What is to be Done?” notes that recovering the American working class family is unlikely to be accomplished by economic growth, education, or institutions alone. So, at the very least, Cherlin’s book shows us how not to approach the issue of inequality.
It does so by forcing us to ask about particular types of equality or inequality and particular types of justice or injustice. Dealing with inequality means asking hard questions, such as: Does a business have obligations to the political community in which it operates? Is the male breadwinner ideal a necessary manifestation of a just family? Is the selffulfillment justification for sex sufficient for social order? Is it just for businesses to replace human workers with machines? What should unions do?
So what do we do? If marriage is so good, how do we overturn the cultural movement away from it? In fact, the Brookings Institution thinks that the current climate is ripe for a renewal of marriage:
We believe that today the broad theme of marriage opportunity can help give birth to a new pro-marriage coalition. […] Liberals fighting for social justice and economic opportunity are now called by the logic of their values to help extend the advantages of marriage to low- and middleincome couples […] Conservatives fighting for social stability and stronger families can now, based on the logic of their deepest values, recognize gays and lesbians who seek the same family values […]In short, for the first time in decades, Americans have an opportunity to think about marriage in a way that brings us together rather than drives us apart.
Brookings notes that “reducing legal, social, and economic barriers to marriage has become something America must do.”
The Trouble And Promise Of Spheres
It is here that the Reformed tradition of social theory can be of service to this discussion.
One of the long-standing obsessions in Reformed political thought is the notion of sphere sovereignty. Those who are even tangentially familiar with this know that members of the Reformed school tend to emphasize the uniqueness of social institutions. Indeed, the emphasis on “sovereignty” reflexively tends to emphasize allowing institutions— families, schools, and more—to manage their affairs without interference from other institutions. This is good, especially in an age of a massively expanding state.
But the tradition, especially as developed in the mid-twentieth century, also recognizes that the various spheres of society are, so to speak, laced together. An action within one sphere will have an effect on another. On the topic of marriage, Jonathan Chaplin notes, “[B]eing brought within the scope of civil law subjects marriages to certain legal limitations. But it still retains its independent character as a marriage.” The concern that many in the Christian community have is that “being brought within” implies what Chaplin calls a “functional subservience” of the one institution to the other, of the family to the state. You get this in the Brookings Institution’s call to support marriage. Marriage is asked to serve some function outside of it: economic equality for liberals and social stability for conservatives. Christians and other are right to be concerned about this, but the concern should not lead to isolating marriage from other spheres.
A more realistic picture must also recognize, as Chaplin does, that “social bodies perform functions for each other.” Social institutions like the state can—should—serve institutions like marriage through judicious public policies aimed at enabling marriage while also guarding marriage from intrusions of other institutions.
Understood this way, the Reformed tradition of sphere sovereignty can make room for Christian policy makers to engage in a shoulder- to-shoulder effort on certain policy fronts even with those whose views of marriage (like, for instance, Brookings’) differ widely. Mutual advocacy of, for instance, removing tax penalties for married couples—or even introducing tax advantages to marriage—might legitimately fit into public efforts to encourage and strengthen marriage without making it subservient to the state or the economy.
But as important as this type of generous public mindedness is, Cherlin’s description of how the self-fulfillment view of sex has found its way into law and into the social consciousness, suggests that efforts to support marriage in the fight against poverty and unjust inequality on this public front alone will be limited. Why?
Because it appears that it is the uniqueness of the nature of the marriage relationship that provides the economic security. In reviewing a study of marriages during the Depression, Cherlin notes that sociological findings suggest that “the negative effects of the Depression were weaker when the family’s pre-Depression relations were stronger and more supportive. Economic crises do not necessarily split families apart; in well-functioning families, crises can draw them together.” In other words, strengthening marriage in order to lessen inequality is unlikely to succeed without a robust sense of what a “well-functioning family” is. And, one might say, coming to any semblance of a consensus on what a wellfunctioning family looks like in our current climate is, at the very least, difficult.
The question is, where will the habits required to create well-functioning families come from? What communities, cultural signals, and symbols shape the ideals and habits of a wellfunctioning family? How might businesses take on a role of enabling marriage while functioning as businesses? What judgments or social pressures is society willing to place on people to enforce those habits? Here we have to ask: Is our given social climate one that seems likely to adopt these types of judgments, or change these cultural signals and symbols? Are we even willing to make room for such institutions that make those judgments even if the broader society disagrees?
Given recent public sentiment on the religious institutions that seem to be the only groups willing to stand by such judgments, and the hints at the law’s treatment of them, one can only say: we’ll see.
And I think this is the same answer we have to give to Cherlin. He asks: “Will we see labour’s love lost as the people we used to call the working class begin to devalue stable family ties? What can be done to support a viable family system to supersede the old one?” We’ll see.