Erosion of values, not economics, to blame for social dislocation

Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun

The solution to every public education problem in Maryland always involves spending more money.

It is the reason the state legislature passed a law in 2002 to spend billions more on education without a funding source and regardless of student achievement, making it annually more difficult to pay for other core government services. It is also the reason legislators unanimously approved hiking teacher pensions in 2006 based on the faulty premise that more money would improve retention.

So news that the achievement gap between rich and poor students is growing in the state and is one of the worst in the nation will no doubt lead to demands for more money to be showered on low-income students, despite a $1.1 billion state budget deficit.

Such a response would make sense on the surface, as wealthy students do better than their poor peers. But as Charles Murray writes in his new book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," the widening achievement spread between the two groups on a host of measures is rooted in a cultural fracturing that began decades ago and is not something that can be fixed by a government program.

He argues that America since the 1960s has increasingly divided into two significant groups. One is highly educated, wealthy, married and geographically isolated from most of the country; the other is poor and single with little education.

It didn't happen because of a sinister plot. "The human impulse behind the isolation of the new upper class is as basic as impulses get: People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk," he writes. But that natural impulse has meant that people now overwhelmingly marry people of similar educational backgrounds, which was not the case in America 50 years ago. This is true across ethnic lines and played out in statistics, which show that socioeconomic status is now more important than race in determining academic performance.

These smart couples are the ones capable of succeeding in today's economy, which requires highly skilled employees able to perform complex tasks. Maryland has lots of them — concentrated in the D.C. suburbs — and also lots of poor people, and it is growing more polarized, according to Census data. Mr. Murray shows how the region has changed over time.

In 1960, 42 percent of adults in Lower Montgomery County had a college degree, and the median income in that area was $94,000 (in 2010 dollars.) By 2000, 77 percent of adults in the same area had college degrees, and the median income was $176,000, making it one of the wealthiest places in the country and one of the most educated. Moreover, the "SuperZips" in this area are clustered in a large band, so that those with high achievement and money rarely interact with those of different classes in their daily lives.

It follows that children of those couples have the genes, the means and the peer pressure to succeed.

The vast majority of the rest of America does not, according to Mr. Murray, because of the erosion of what he calls the "founding virtues" of marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity that the people in the upper class still follow (even if they refuse to preach them) but that those in the lower classes have shunned.

The statistics on marriage alone are overwhelming. In the 1960s, people of all classes held very similar views on the importance of marriage, the immorality of sex outside of marriage and the degree of difficulty required to divorce — and were married at similar rates. Over time, however, divorce rates soared, as did the rate of people who never married (comparatively and absolutely speaking) for those living in places where the vast majority never attended college.

It is widely known that having a child out of wedlock is one of the surest indicators that a person will live in poverty. And the collapse of community for those who live in areas of poverty makes it nearly impossible to climb out of that life — as few of the habits and values that lead to success are cultivated or rewarded, as made apparent by the crime, school dropout and out-of-wedlock birth rates in places like Baltimore City.

Believing money alone can fix those problems is akin to believing that playing the lottery is a sound retirement plan. And it is more sinister in that social policies that treat those issues as morally neutral financial matters teach our most desperate children that a lack of money is to blame for what ultimately only their own choices can make right.