December 11, 2010

Indication of a Divide or Superfluity?

Justin Katz

Rich Lowry writes about "a slow-motion social and economic evisceration of a swath of Middle America":

In the 1970s, 73 percent of both the highly and moderately educated were in intact first marriages. That figure plummeted across the board, yet the moderately educated (45 percent in intact first marriages) are now closer to the least-educated (39 percent) than to the highly educated (56 percent).

The number for out-of-wedlock births is starker. From 1982 until today, the percentage of non-marital births among the moderately educated exploded from 13 percent to 44 percent. That figure is close to the least-educated (54 percent) and a vast distance from the highly educated (only 6 percent). Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation compares the dynamic to a carpet unraveling from the bottom, as illegitimacy first took hold among the poor and now works up the income scale.

Much of what Lowry writes is inarguable. That's especially true when it comes to economic mobility: families at the bottom of the scale are more likely to find themselves remaining there generation after generation as the habits of stability — most critically, the concept of insoluble marriage and its intrinsic relation to childbirth — evaporate from the common culture. But a chart that Lowry has posted in the Corner makes me wonder if some of the calamity isn't a shadow consequence of the higher education bubble:

Thanks to the stable marriage around which it is built, my household is pretty close to where the yellow line suggests that we should be, given our college degrees. Here's the thing: I'm a carpenter, part of a new generation entering the trade, many of us with four-year degrees. I was an oddity when I started. In my current company of four, only one lacks a degree. In other words, folks who were previously on the purple and brown lines of the chart aren't necessarily making less money; at least some of them have just transitioned to the yellow line, as college degrees become sufficiently ubiquitous that blue collar employers can begin using them for job screening just as white collar employers have been doing.

Glenn Reynolds yesterday linked to an essay by Richard Vedder that comes to the same place from a different direction:

... approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation's stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor's degree or more.

As Reynolds states, the "tuition they’re paying is basically wasted," which brings the analysis around to the reason that tracking with the yellow line hasn't necessarily been a boon for us highly educated laborers. My family is certainly not unique in having been caught so thoroughly in the debt trap that we need college-educated salaries in order to maintain a high-school diploma lifestyle.

College loans are definitely part of the detrimental equation, and so were the the four-plus years spent living away from the parental nest without full-time paying jobs. Throw in the vehicles that we had to buy on credit, upon entering the workforce, because we didn't have those years in our pre-parenthood early twenties of having more income than we had expenses. Then layer in the false expectations that promotion of the economic benefits of college have instilled in soon-to-be-over-educated generations. (Mounting credit card debt is much more tolerable when twenty-five year olds look at the yellow line as a promise.)

I've long thought that history would view the modern debt trap as a more sophisticated indentured servitude, and higher education is a central gear in that machine, with paper and plastic credit as the oil that makes the crank easier to work than it ought to be.

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Interesting article and comments, Mr. Katz. I am especially interested to read that you are a college-educated tradesman, a carpenter to be exact. I would love to enter a trade as you have, but I am at midlife (49 y.o.), and the unions don't let guys my age into the game. Any recommendations? I used to wrench cars many years ago, and know my way around tools and mechanical devices.

Posted by: Pete at December 12, 2010 2:42 AM

The other thing that has occurred since 1970's is that there has been a widening between the very rich and middle income families. Tax policies that reward the very rich continuing to this day may be a more significant reason for what this author, Rich Lowry calls "a slow-motion social and economic evisceration of a swath of Middle America". Two incomes were increasingly needed for families to hold onto the economic place where one income had been needed. Credit rose as wages stayed stagnant. Unions lost membership as jobs went overseas and across borders and the non union jobs that remained were jobs with less income and without pensions and ultimately without healthcare. And if all of that was not bad enough wages for lower income people were driven even lower by a lax attitude towards illegal immigration. And the rich got richer.

Posted by: Phil at December 12, 2010 7:53 AM

Phil, how have "tax policies" led to the rich getting richer? And, which "tax policies" in your view are the culprits? I'm always interested in hearing from people with views such as yours and trying to understand the thought process that allows you to make such a conclusion.

It is the growth of government (local, state and federal) and the progressive tax structure that has harmed the middles class the most. The growth of government has led to many taxes (other than income and payroll taxes) that sap money from every family whether rich, middle class or poor.

Don't believe me? Look at your cell phone bill. How much of that monthly bill goes to taxes?

Posted by: Scott at December 12, 2010 8:29 AM

Much of the youth that is educated in colleges and universities are from a very privileged upbringing where everything is provided for them. There are numerous students that have always received everything they wanted, from toys to cars and everything in between. This holds true with their education and later employment. They were taught that some things (i.e. certain trades) are beneath them, and they shouldn’t settle. There is a major flaw with this logic; these students have not battled through the adversity of HARD work.
Today, so many people think that a piece of paper is the ticket to prosperity and the American dream. If hard work is not exerted to receive it, what does it really mean? You partied all four years, studied just enough to get decent grades and now you’re in the real world. The only problem now is that the higher education taught them what to think, not how to think. They cannot react to changes in their lives and their employment, and to top it all off they feel entitled.
The only group of students who are actually going to gain from higher education are the individuals who have worked for what they have. The students that excel are the ones who gained athletic or academic scholarships due to hard work in the past, or work two jobs to pay for their own schooling. Nothing in this life is truly a free ride, but for many that is what has been there existence from birth.

Posted by: Hammeraway at December 12, 2010 11:08 AM

Interesting article, Mr. Katz. I've noticed that with rare exceptions, all of the craftsmen and tradesmen I've come to rely upon have college degrees, but I don't think such degrees provide only a pre-screening function- I think they're integral. As a female on the pink line I need to work with people who can help me understand what's going on and who respect my limited input, and men (I haven't run across any women in these trades yet) with a college education seem to do this much better. Communication skills are essential- after all there's often a large chunk of money at stake. Even my painter has an English degree- he paints because he likes the flexible hours and solitude.

My general contractor considers his degree in agriculture time and money well-spent. Among other things, he told me that he benefitted from interacting with women on a professional level. Perhaps I'm the prejudiced one, but I often get the "little lady" vibe when I'm working with men who have never been to college.

I really find his thoughts on the whole experience interesting, because he's referring to the roots of what a college education used to be about. Remember when young people went to school to become an "educated person" and not with a specific goal in mind? Wouldn't it be great not to worry about whether your degree is "bankable" because you have a trade that is?

Posted by: Dana at December 13, 2010 11:30 AM

"Communication skills are essential"

Dana is barely touching on something that should be considered...

Fifty years ago, I can guarantee that everyone getting a high school diploma could read, write, speak coherently, and do simple math in their head. These days, there are kids graduating with bachelors' who can't properly form a sentence. The underpinnings of many of those colored lines have been diluted dramatically.

Also, in a low-tech manufacturing economy, you didn't need to know how to read or write, so high school wasn't really even a requirement to get by. These days, even the manufacturing is high-tech, computer-driven, and 1/10,000th of an inch precise. We've utterly failed to keep our education system in line with the needs of our economy, and we have a massive uneducated, dependent, and unemployable peasant class to show for it.

Posted by: mangeek at December 13, 2010 6:46 PM

1. I totally agree with marking a difference between being educated and knowing a skill. Not everything should be measured in terms of making money. I think being smart is valuable for its own sake sort of like being physically fit.

2. Autodidactic education should replace the college model of getting smart because a debt burden is not smart.

3. I am a college grad who works a blue collar job out of choice. I enjoy it more than the Machiavellian machinations of management which I have been offered to join but have declined. I sleep well knowing I did something honest and productive with my day.

Posted by: Charlie at December 13, 2010 10:48 PM

I am continually appalled at the jobs that state a college degree is needed when I know full well from having done these jobs that all of the learning is on-the-job and/or by non-college study. I don't understand how this happened unless it's the appalling state of a high-school non-education.

I have to second Mangeek: college now seems to be the equivalent of a high-school diploma 20 to 30 years ago. Consequently, since there's no way the remediation in college is an adequate replacement for basic skills not learned in elementary school, we have an increasingly non-communicative work force. I don't see how this can end well.

Posted by: Tonestaple at December 14, 2010 5:45 PM
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