Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Working Class Religious Crisis

Everyone is talking about the crisis among working class whites. Well, no, not everyone, although a significant segment of the chattering class has belatedly discovered this issue. In fact, most of the people who ought to be talking about it still aren't, which is precisely the problem!

Last week, two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case, published a study that, in this era of rising life expectancy for almost everyone else, found a shocking increase in the death rates for 45-54 year old whites who never attended college. Even more significant is the fact that these deaths are increasingly related to alcohol and/or drug abuse and a rise in suicides. (African Americans in that age group still have a higher death rate, but their death rate continues to fall, whereas the working-class white rate is rising, which is what is so significant.)

When the issue is addressed at all by political and cultural elites, those on the left emphasize economic policies that, in the post-1980 world, have resulted in increasing inequality and the social dysfunctions that has produced. They are correct, of course, but only partially so. Meanwhile, those on the right point to the breakdown of what one might call the communal safety net, notably working class families (once so strong, now no longer) and religious affiliation (once widespread, now no longer). They too are partially correct. In fact, people can cope (or cope better at least with poverty, poor education, inadequate health care, and lack of economic opportunity when they have strong families and are connected with supportive social networks where they can rely on others who help them feel both valued and not alone in the world. Without that life is lonelier and more lacking in meaning but economic benefits and social service can at least make it easier and help one keep going in spite of loneliness and lack of meaning.

An earlier study that seems especially relevant to this discussion is "No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class," by W. Bradford Wilcox, Andrew J. Cherlin, Jeremy E. Uecker, and Matthew Messel, and which can be accessed online at

Despite the tedious academic jargon, that study's conclusions are worth quoting in full:  

"This paper finds evidence that religious life among the moderately educated – which may be the closest analogy to the “working class” today – is becoming increasingly deinstitutionalized, much as working class economic and family life have become increasingly deinstitutionalized. Using repeated cross-sectional surveys from two national data collections programs, the GSS and the NSFG, we find that religious attendance among whites has declined most precipitously among whites without college degrees, including moderately educated whites—that is, whites with a high school degree or some college but no bachelor’s degree. By contrast, we do not find a decline among moderately educated blacks; and we do not find a monotonic educational gradient at all among Hispanics.

"Our results suggest that the bourgeois and familistic moral logics that have long been linked to religious institutions are now less powerful in the lives of working class whites than they used to be. Specifically, in the last forty years, white working class income, employment, marital stability, and cultural conservatism have all declined—and markedly more so than they have for college-educated whites (Cherlin, 2009; Wilcox, 2010). Indeed, our results suggest that these bourgeois and familistic factors may account for a substantial share of the relatively large decline of working class church attendance. Within the limits of observational data, we think that our results suggest that the erosion of the labor market and cultural structures associated with the bourgeois and familistic moral logics in American life may have played an important role in accounting for recent declines in religious attendance among working class whites.

"While we recognize that not everyone wishes to worship, and that religious diversity can be valuable, we also think that the existence of a large group in the middle of the American stratification system that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society. This development is especially troubling because it only reinforces the social marginalization of working class whites who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work (Cherlin, 2011)."

No comments:

Post a Comment