Opinion

What Obama and Romney aren't talking about: America's class divide

I am the proud son of a hardworking milkman. I also have a PhD from Yale. Therein lies a story of class mobility, an issue that is crucial for America's future and that ought to be part of the presidential campaign. Yet neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will address class head on.

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at Con-Air Industries in Orlando, Fla. June 12. Democrats and Republicans are wary of trying to exploit a new report about the sharp drop in household wealth. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. writes: 'The shortage of simple solutions is one reason why politicians avoid the issue of social class. Moreover, the two presidential candidates – both prep-school graduates with Harvard law degrees – have little in common with...less-well-educated people.'
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I am the proud son of a hardworking milkman. I also have a PhD from Yale. Such a combination is a bit unusual, and a new book suggests that it will become even rarer. Therein lies a story of class mobility, an issue that is crucial for our country’s future and that ought to be part of the presidential campaign.

In “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” political scientist Charles Murray amasses a large amount of data to show that the United States has developed a new kind of class system. (He focuses on whites in order to drive home that it’s not just a matter affecting blacks, Hispanics, and other racial or ethnic groups.)

Members of the highly educated upper class set themselves apart from other Americans not only by where they dwell, but also by how they raise their children and conduct other aspects of their daily lives. Obviously, members of the lower class have less money, but ominous trends have been converging to keep them on the bottom. These trends include falling rates of labor force participation (even before the Great Recession) and rising rates of out-of-wedlock births.

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Of course, class has always been with us. When I helped my father on his milk truck, we went to all the finest houses in town – making deliveries at the back door. But in the 1950s and ’60s, young people of modest means could see their way over the class wall. One of my classmates came from a broken home and grew up in public housing. He became a lawyer and is now mayor of our hometown.

If Mr. Murray is right, however, the next generation of educated professionals will consist almost entirely of the sons and daughters of other educated professionals. Members of the upper class send their children to better schools, coach them in ways of success, and know how to game college admissions. Members of the lower class have little access to such advantages. Although critics have faulted details of Murray’s argument, it is hard to deny his larger point: It is bad to have such sharply diverging classes.

So what do we do about it? Murray hopes for a civic Great Awakening in which upper-class members come out of their bubble. They would teach their children the value of physical labor and military service (the provinces, generally, of the less affluent), become more active in religious congregations, and take part in the life of their communities at a more serious level than attending charity events. Arguing that the affluent usually live out the virtues of devotion to work and family, Murray writes: “A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice.” Murray’s suggestions are idealistic and not very specific, but they could be the starting point for a valuable discussion in the presidential campaign.

Unfortunately, the candidates are not taking the issue head-on. The president has talked about tax fairness and the middle class, but the data show that the tax system has little to do with the class problem.

Notwithstanding anecdotes about billionaires who pay lower rates than their secretaries, the system is progressive. The top 20 percent of earners actually pay a higher rate than those who make less, and they account for about two-thirds of all federal tax revenue. At the other end of the economic scale, many Americans pay no income tax at all.

Republicans like to talk about lower taxes as a spur to growth, but a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some boats sink. The trend toward greater income inequality continued throughout the last decade, even as the Bush tax cuts were taking effect.

Both sides portray education reform as a key to opportunity. Democrats press for more spending and Republicans (and also the White House) stress greater accountability. But inflation-adjusted spending per pupil has doubled since 1970, and the No Child Left Behind testing regime has been in place for a decade. And yet the education achievement gap between rich and poor children keeps growing.

Some, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have advocated school choice programs as a way to give poorer families an alternative to troubled public schools, and as a spur to encourage those schools to improve. But even the most enthusiastic supporters of school choice cannot claim that it is a cure-all.

As for out-of-wedlock births, Democrats frequently call for greater access to contraception, while Republicans favor tighter restrictions on welfare. The evidence suggests that neither approach would accomplish much, though Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill writes: “The government has a limited role to play.” She advocates government support for local programs and nonprofit organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy.

The shortage of simple solutions is one reason why politicians avoid the issue of social class. Moreover, the two presidential candidates – both prep-school graduates with Harvard law degrees – have little in common with the less-well-educated people that Murray is describing.

In the 2008 race, then-Senator Obama famously dismissed small-town Pennsylvanians as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” According to journalist Thomas Edsall, the 2012 Obama campaign is planning to ignore this type in favor of a coalition of racial minorities and upper-income professionals. (The campaign denies the report.)

Mr. Romney is not exactly a street kid, either: He grew up rich and got a lot richer at Bain Capital. His efforts at reaching across classes can be cringemaking. “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners,” he said back in February.

But even though answers are elusive and the candidates are uncomfortable with the issue, there is still no excuse to avoid the class divide. They need to start talking frankly about the causes and consequences of inequality – and about what government can and cannot do to address it.

As Lyndon Johnson asked when an aide warned him that civil rights would be a tough sell: What’s the presidency for?

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."

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