How conservative and liberal elites fail to understand the poor

The upper class sure has a lot to say about the way people in lower classes live...

The norms of elites don’t work for everyone.
(Image credit: (Si Huynh/Illustration Works/Corbis))

What's driving the decline in working-class families, marriages, and communities? The debate rages on.

But here's one really big problem: the debate's largely being carried out by upper-class commentators — yours truly very much included. So let's pause for a moment to think about the way the actual values and actual ways of living amongst less fortunate Americans defy and confound the expectations of liberal and conservative elites alike.

Let's start with conservatives. Their thesis is essentially that the tearing of the social fabric was primarily caused by the changing social norms of the sexual revolution. The value of marriage, family, and children was undercut by no-fault divorce laws, by the legalization of abortion, and by liberal elites enthusiastically saturating popular culture with a sexual norm of "safe permissiveness." But when the poor and the working class try to live out these new norms, social chaos and economic disaster result, because they lack the privilege that protects liberal elites from their own modest libertinism.

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The stated values of poor and working-class Americans upend this narrative. For example, support for marriage is equally strong across classes. While the less educated have become more tolerant of premarital sex since the 1970s, they remain more opposed than others. Pro-life sentiments increase as income and education decreases, and lower-class Americans even share something of elite conservatives' trepidation about birth control, viewing it as undercutting trust and fidelity.

Americans with lower incomes and education are a bit more likely to be religious than Americans higher up the ladder. Among believers, the upper class is more likely to regularly attend church, but that's fully consistent with the theory that economics undergirds social capital.

Sociological studies among less fortunate Americans in the inner city show that the poor and working class are most often profoundly welcoming of children. In a world where college and a career are often out of reach, many women view kids as their one likely shot at stability and meaning. Lower-class men are often equally as enthusiastic, again seeing the child as their central source of meaning and moving heaven and earth to spend time with them.

But the ability of these men to be traditional breadwinners has been gutted by the disappearance of good jobs and incomes. On balance, that turns marriage into an economic risk rather than a boon, which in turn poisons trust between men and women, precisely because both sides value the traditional male breadwinner role. They love their children, but are often at cross-purposes with each other. And young men still often fail to take on the daily, round-the-home domestic labor of raising the kids, and have few role models to show them they way.

To compound the problem, the material deprivation of poverty saps people of time and cognitive energy, while the jobs they can get don't pay enough, and are often capriciously and unpredictably scheduled.

The irony is that the working class and the poor often agree with elite conservatives' values, they just regularly fail to live out these values in any sort of coherent or functional way. A misbegotten attempt to ape the glamorous and casual-sex-drenched world of Hollywood or whatever is not what's going on here.

So do elite conservatives have it backwards? Is it their values the working class are actually trying to emulate, and that's what's undoing them? Do they simply need the value of the liberal elite "sequence" — an education, a job, then marriage, then kids — impressed upon them more forcefully?

Not really.

First off, the chaotic schedules, social circumstances, and economic landscape of poor and working-class life makes the use of any contraceptive that requires daily discipline — such as the pill — more difficult. The dearth of public health and family planning services adds to the problem, and birth control that doesn't require daily upkeep — like IUDs — can be prohibitively expensive for anyone without access to insurance or Medicaid. That certainly seems to be part of why lower-class women see so many more unintended pregnancies.

Another very big factor: There's little point in adhering to the "delay kids" step if all the other subsequent steps won't be coming regardless. The poor are not dumb. They know the elite lifestyles, omnipresent in popular culture, have been placed out of their reach by the realities of the economy. They're doing the best they can with the options on the table.

More fundamentally, liberal elites can sometimes have a habit of lamenting poorer Americans' explicitly stated values. They worry the lower class, women especially, undervalue career and economic goals vis-a-vis domestic ideals, while foolishly forgoing abortion's effectiveness as a form of economic self-defense. Liberals can fall into seeing lower-class traditionalism not just as wrong or unenlightened, but genuinely self-destructive.

There's an irony here too. The liberal elite "sequence" of career advancement and delayed child-bearing is effectively a surrender to modern cut-throat capitalism. That's why it works. Which is an odd thing for the left to acquiesce to. Why should the lower class retool their values to fit capitalism's demands? Shouldn't the economy be remade to work for the values they already hold?

The norms of elites — whether liberal or conservative — don't work for the poor precisely because they are poor. Just as economic security allows the upper class to live either a traditionalist or a more libertine lifestyle, the lack of that security thwarts the efforts of the poor to live by either script. Because the poor lack resources and live at the behest of a ragged and chaotic labor market, both ways of life twist back upon them in contradictory and poisonous ways.

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Jeff Spross

Jeff Spross was the economics and business correspondent at He was previously a reporter at ThinkProgress.