Is Britain ‘coming apart’ as cultural inequality increases?

November 9, 2012

A while back I read Charles Murray’s most recent book, Coming Apart.

Murray argues that the previously common culture of the United States has been pulled apart. There is a new upper class and a new lower class which have diverged so far their tastes, behaviour and values that they barely feel like the same country any more.

He argues that while traditional social norms have been maintained or even strengthened at the top, the work ethic and family life have broken down at the bottom. The rise of higher education and increasing assortative mating (the tendency to marry or mate with people who are similar to you) are tending to create haves with lots of social capital and have-nots with very little, making escaping from poverty harder than before. Ed West describes this as “cultural inequality”.

Murray argues that this growing divergence is more a cause than a consequence of rising income inequality. Children growing up in communities in which social structures have broken down are less likely to succeed themselves.

I think the book is fascinating. And other bits of work seem to point in the same direction. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort shows increasing residential segregation in the US, as people “sort” themselves into neighbourhoods with like-minded people. These processes may explain the increasing polarisation of US politics, demonstrated in spades in the recent election.

But are the same processes at work in the UK?

I have always been wary of intellectual ideas which sweep in from the US, because while there are lots of similarities, there are plenty of differences too. We have a bigger and very different welfare state, different racial and religious history, different geography… a quite different national story.

But there are certainly similarities.

Here’s one. The chart below shows the proportion of kids who are born outside marriage by social class in Britain. Its quite a short period of time, but you get the general idea. At the top, things haven’t changed much. At the bottom, having children inside marriage is not the norm, and increasingly rare.

The top graph is the 2000s, and the bottom the 1990s. Frustratingly there was a change in the way the statistics were recorded, so we can’t really compare. But the general trend is the same – a smaller decline at the top, but a much a bigger decline at the bottom.

The third graph shows the same data in a different way – two different odds ratios, the relative proportion of children born within marriage, comparing between fathers in the top and bottom social classes.

If the ratio was 1:1, then children of fathers in the lowest social class would have the same chance of being born to a married couple as children of fathers in the top social class.

As you can see, children of lower social class men were just over a fifth less likely to be born into a married couple in 1988 than children in the top social class. But since then the habits of the classes have diverged quite radically. By 2010, children in the top social class were twice as likely to be born to a married couple than children of men in the bottom social group.

(Comparison is class I-II vs IV-V in the first period, and a different measure (class 1.1 vs class 7) in the later period.

Now I’m not about to go off on some finger-wagging rant about people having kids outside marriage. I’ve had friends and colleagues in that situation, and it can happen for all kinds of reasons, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

But getting married then having kids is the game plan that most people generally aspire to in all classes. But for poorer people, things increasingly don’t work out that way – for one reason or another.

Does that matter? I suspect the data above is probably a reasonable proxy for wider family instability. We know that lone parents are more likely to end up in poverty, while cohabiting couples are more likely to split up, all of which is unhappy for parents, and makes like harder for the children.

I think it’s easy for people for people in the political / media bubble (who are almost all in the top social groups) to underestimate the huge changes going on in our society, because they’re mainly happening to people they don’t know, in places they don’t go.

In the 1970s Keith Joseph worried about “cycles of deprivation”. He made several thoughtful speeches on the subject which were well received (even by the left) but then spoiled things with a (in)famous speech in Birmingham which killed off his chances of becoming Tory leader and so cleared the way for Mrs Thatcher.

Today the idea that there are “cycles of deprivation” has moved from controversial to mainstream. You can read vast academic tomes on the subject. But politicians and other civic leaders have struggled to do anything about it, or even agree about what’s happening.

People see use the same data to argue to different conclusions. Some would still say these are benign changes which don’t matter. Others that they are purely the product of economic circumstances (higher inequality and worklessness). I don’t believe either.

In the search for answers the centre-right have tended to look at the incentives set up by the welfare state, while the left have tended to argue that better education, or interventions like Surestart are the answer. Both seem like sensible things to think about.

But so far they have failed to make as much difference as politicians hoped. So is something more radical required? Or is Murray right to argue that what we really need is a change in the culture?

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website

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