The Globe and Mail has an interesting editorial/book review from Margaret Wente asking the question, “Have we become a caste society?“ Prompting this is a book being released this week, “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray. In it, he reportedly argues that class differences in America have stopped being economic, or even social, but have risen to the level of culture. In other words, the differences between the upper and lower classes are no longer a question of either money or surface interests, but of completely different core beliefs, literally foreign ways of viewing the world.
For clarity, Murray represents the upper and lower classes by fictional neighborhoods: Belmont and Fishtown. (Fishtown, really?) These neighborhoods themselves represent the top and bottom economic quintiles of society, however, to limit the number of variables, he assumes white populations in both neighborhoods.
If you’re in the top 20 percent these days, you may never, ever cross paths with anyone from the bottom 20 percent. If you happen to drive through Fishtown, you’re probably not getting out of your car. Even if you send your kids to public school (you can easily afford private), it’s going to be a very different environment than the schools in Fishtown.
The danger is that the US has reached the point where closing the income gap seems less and less possible. And the consequences of that? If you believe Karl Marx, the inevitable result of this disparity is a proletarian revolution. If you believe H.G. Wells, the next step is speciation into Morlocks and Eloi. But leaving such fanciful speculations aside, this trend can only hurt the middle class.
Countries with a strong middle class, like Finland, do better. The top 20 percent (and multiply by a factor of 100 for the top one percent) are the stock from which industry and political leaders are drawn. As they lose touch with their fellow citizens, especially those in Fishtown, they’ll become less and less effective as leaders, and less and less representative of their needs.
The bottom 20 percent, meanwhile, is becoming less and less politically engaged, and having more and more trouble staying afloat. The further they fall behind the rest of the country, the more their problems will multiply. More and more single-parent families, greater and greater unemployment as well as underemployment, more and more dependence on social assistance. A healthy society does not have 20% of its citizens struggling to this degree. And it can hardly be sustainable in the long run.
This being the Globe and Mail, Wente takes a Canadian perspective, wondering whether this argument might also apply to our country. Being Canadian myself, I wonder the same thing.
It’s true, our income disparity is not nearly so stark as it is in the United States. We have far fewer of the ultra-rich, per capita, among our citizenry. As Wente points out, the top one percent in Canada are not so very much ahead of middle class families. Most any family with two working professionals — doctor, lawyer, or high school principal, say — will qualify.
But we do indeed have a cultural lower class. The poorest in our nation are our Aboriginal people, about 70 percent of whom can be found off-reserve, often in the downtown core of our cities, with the remainder in isolated reserves in the North. And the rest of us are about as in touch with their problems in any kind of immediate or personal way as it is possible to be.
Here’s a recap: our brutal government legacy first includes carting Aboriginals off to reservations built on the least desirable land available, resulting in “communities” with no possible basis for an economy, thus being entirely reliant on meagre government funding. This was followed by the residential schools program, wherein children were taken from their families, lost their language, and were told that everything they were was bad by religious “educators” who saw them as savages.
Today a culture survives in Aboriginal communities, but it’s not a healthy one. Teen suicide rates are through the roof on most reserves. Child molestation, substance abuse and gang warfare run rampant. Unemployment sometimes approaches 100 percent. High school graduation rates are abysmal. Teen pregnancy is the norm. Fetal alcohol syndrome is epidemic.
It’s a culture our government and our own intolerance created. We put a bunch of people in the middle of nowhere with literally no educational or career opportunities. We let a generation or two go by, and this is the result. Now we say we want to make things better. But can we remake a culture from the ground up?
I want to believe it’s possible. But there are no quick fixes. And it won’t be accomplished with half-measures. The starting point is probably getting a politician into office, Aboriginal or non-, who thinks of summit meetings as more than a photo opp.
Photo credit: C. Lodge