The Dignity Deficit

Robert likes the article “The Dignity Deficit” in the latest Foreign Policy magazine (free registration required). Arthur C. Brooks (forewarning: yes, the AEI President) suggests that government needs to align around a “neededness agenda” in which it asks whether policies are making people (i.e., white working class people) feel more needed, rather than like freeloaders.

Favorite paragraph is the last one about sharing “secrets.”

“Today, the top and the bottom of American society live in separate worlds. They do not attend school together, socialize together, or work together. They hardly know each other. As a result, few people in either of these two Americas even recognize the social trends that are widening the cultural gulf between them. Some differences are trivial, such as regional accents or entertainment preferences. Other differences, however, are more consequential: for example, the birthrate among unmarried mothers. Whereas less than ten percent of births to college-educated women occur out of wedlock, the comparable figure for women with only a high school degree or less is more than 50 percent. Children born out of wedlock are more likely to grow up without a father, and those brought up in such circumstances are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to suffer from mental health problems, and less likely to work later in life. In other words, class-based cultural differences are more than a matter of curiosity. They are a major factor in producing the misery that so many Americans experience.

Of course, the United States does not need a cabinet-level secretary of middle-class morals. But legislators and officials should try to ensure that any social policy passes a simple test: Does it weaken family integrity or social cohesion—for example, by encouraging single parenthood, fragmenting communities, erecting barriers to religious expression, or rewarding idleness?

Moral suasion can be even more powerful than policy. Before elites on the left and the right do battle over policy fixes, they need to ask themselves, “What am I personally doing to share the secrets of my success with those outside my social class?” According to the best social science available, those secrets are not refundable tax credits or auto-shop classes, as important as those things might be. Rather, the keys to fulfillment are building a stable family life, belonging to a strong community, and working hard. Elites have an ethical duty to reveal how they have achieved and sustained success. Readers can decide for themselves whether this suggestion reflects hopeless paternalism, Good Samaritanism, or perhaps both.”