Monday, May 4, 2015
Race, Class and Neglect: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."
PAUL KRUGMAN. New York Times
Every time you’re tempted to say that America is moving forward on race —
that prejudice is no longer as important as it used to be — along comes an
atrocity to puncture your complacency. Almost everyone realizes, I hope, that
the Freddie Gray affair wasn’t an isolated incident, that it’s unique only to the
extent that for once there seems to be a real possibility that justice may be
And the riots in Baltimore, destructive as they are, have served at least
one useful purpose: drawing attention to the grotesque inequalities that
poison the lives of too many Americans.
Yet I do worry that the centrality of race and racism to this particular
story may convey the false impression that debilitating poverty and alienation
from society are uniquely black experiences. In fact, much though by no means
all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about
class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.
Take, for example, issues of health and mortality. Many people have
pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore
where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World
nations. But what’s really striking on a national basis is the way class
disparities in death rates have been soaring even among whites.
Most notably, mortality among white women has increased sharply since
the 1990s, with the rise surely concentrated among the poor and poorly
educated; life expectancy among less educated whites has been falling at rates
reminiscent of the collapse of life expectancy in postCommunist Russia.
And yes, these excess deaths are the result of inequality and lack of
opportunity, even in those cases where their direct cause lies in selfdestructive
behavior. Overuse of prescription drugs, smoking, and obesity
account for a lot of early deaths, but there’s a reason such behaviors are so
widespread, and that reason has to do with an economy that leaves tens of
It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if
poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make
bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middleclass values. Maybe,
just maybe, that was a sustainable argument four decades ago, but at this point
it should be obvious that middleclass values only flourish in an economy that
offers middleclass jobs.
The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widelydecried
social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families,
were actually caused by the disappearance of wellpaying jobs in inner cities.
His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to
face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar
And so it has proved. Lagging wages — actually declining in real terms for
half of working men — and work instability have been followed by sharp
declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more.
As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution writes: “Blacks have faced,
and will continue to face, unique challenges. But when we look for the reasons
why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is
largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middleclass lifestyle is
eluding a growing number of whites as well.”
So it is, as I said, disheartening still to see commentators suggesting that
the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they
acted like members of the upper middle class.
And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another
debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail
(because of values, you see.)
In reality, federal spending on meanstested programs other than
Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going
up in recessions and down in recoveries. That’s not a lot of money — it’s far
less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families
below the poverty line.
Despite this, measures that correct wellknown flaws in the statistics show
that we have made some real progress against poverty. And we would make a
lot more progress if we were even a fraction as generous toward the needy as
we imagine ourselves to be.
The point is that there is no excuse for fatalism as we contemplate the
evils of poverty in America. Shrugging your shoulders as you attribute it all to
values is an act of malign neglect. The poor don’t need lectures on morality,
they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better
economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through
everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages. Baltimore,
and America, don’t have to be as unjust as they are.