Robin Hood is a heroic, English outlaw known for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. He and his merry band of rogues discomfited the unscrupulous sheriff of Nottinghamshire, who had dispossessed Robin of his property. The myth has persisted for more than 800 years.
Horatio Alger, Jr. wrote more than 100 books designed for young, working-class men, which are best described as rags-to-riches stories. His first book appeared shortly after the Civil War. His novels portrayed young men who led exemplary lives, rising from poverty and other adversities. The protagonists realized the “American Dream” based on honesty, thrift, self-reliance, and industry.
Which myth persists today? Both.
Robin Hood and his merry band currently reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. They are still focused on extracting the earnings of the “rich” and redistributing them to the less fortunate. The wealthy “1 percent” continues to suppress the less fortunate, inhibiting their social mobility and smothering fairness, defined as “economic inequality.” Government is now the sheriff, and the welfare state is the mechanism for righting this evil.
Horatio Alger lives in the breasts of entrepreneurs. America is enjoying an explosion of dreamers who imagine a new product or service and who are willing to risk time, talent, and treasure to pursue their dreams. Thousands are still drawn to our shores as immigrants, seeking a society based on meritocracy and the opportunity for social mobility.
Which myth best propels U.S. economic growth — economic inequality or social mobility? America has long opted for social mobility as long as economic advancement is a realistic goal and capitalism does not become a caste system. Supporters of both myths agree that education is a critical benchmark to achieve mobility. What is too often overlooked is another benchmark — marriage.
The breakdown of marriage has spawned the rise of the single-parent household. In 1980, about 18 percent of births were to unmarried women; by 2009, the number had escalated to 41 percent. The increase among whites rose from 11 percent to 36 percent; among blacks, the number jumped from 56 percent to 72 percent; and Hispanic numbers increased from 37 percent to 53 percent. Concomitantly, the number of children living with two parents has dropped since 1970 from 82 percent to 63 percent. On average, children in single-parent homes have lower grades, do more drugs, and have higher arrest rates.
The drop in marriage rates exacerbates income inequality of those in the lowest income quintile, creating a fault line separating economic classes. Fifty years ago, marriage rates for the most- and least-educated adults were identical. Today, two-thirds of college graduates are married, compared with less than half of those with a high-school diploma or those who did not graduate. The numbers also tell us that those with less education are both more likely to cohabit and are quicker to divorce.
The fault line is also widened by who marries whom. Fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for the boss to marry his secretary, who probably came from a different economic strata and level of education. Today, marriage is largely between those with equal education: I met my spouse in med school or law school. The couple then most likely resides in a clustered community of like-educated couples, further segregating economic classes
The numbers are important because a strong determinant of educational achievement is being raised in a stable, two-parent home. By age 12, two-thirds of children born to cohabiting parents will see them split up, compared with just a quarter of children born to parents who are married. Educational achievement, in turn, usually determines lifetime income. The result: fewer marriages mean more economic inequality.
Which brings us to men in the lowest income quintile. For them, it is most difficult to find employment, because they are undereducated and have adjusted poorly to a marketplace requiring more office work and less factory work, construction, and transportation. This, in turn, marginalizes them as prospective marriage partners. Our stagnant economy exacerbates the situation, causing many to simply drop out of the labor market. In March, the U.S. Labor Department reported that 496,000 people had exited the labor force. The data shows a direct correlation between falling earnings of poorly educated men and declining marriage rates. It also suggests that the implosion of stable families costs taxpayers $112 billion annually.
Economic mobility, then, is a family enterprise. But, it’s also an individual enterprise. We all marvel at immigrants who arrive penniless in America, unable to speak the language, and in a few years, many create thriving enterprises and their children are the class valedictorians who go on to professional careers. The family culture stresses education and the Horatio Alger attributes of thrift, self-reliance, and hard work. Clearly, America is still a land of opportunity for those who don’t buy into the Robin Hood concept based on envy and resentment.
The multicultural dogma tells us that all cultures are equal. Put that in the baloney column. Horatio Alger may be a myth, but cultures built on Alger’s principles nurture real rags-to-riches stories.
The biggest obstacle to mobility in our society is the growing stratification of the lowest economic quintile. The best answer is to promote stable, two-parent families. Marriage matters.
Norman Poltenson is publisher of The Central New York Business Journal. Contact him at email@example.com