IT WAS 1839 when Thomas Carlyle noted what he called “the standard-of-living question,” which might be answered by the piles of economic statistics available then as now to data nerds. But there is a deeper question haunting the public today, just as it did in Carlyle’s time.
Or as perceptive Gertrude Himmelfarb has explained: What is “the ‘condition’ and ‘disposition’ of the people: their beliefs and feelings, their sense of right and wrong, the attitudes and habits that would dispose them either to a ‘wholesome composure, frugality, and prosperity, or to an ‘acrid unrest, recklessness, gin-drinking, and gradual ruin.’” For the answer, Gentle Reader need only look around.
According to a 2015 National Academy of Sciences paper referenced by Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard in August 2016: “Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and inability to work, as well as clinically measured deteriorations in liver function, all point to growing distress” among middle-aged non-Hispanic white Americans between 1999 and 2013.
Self-medication, it turns out, has a way of leading to self-destruction. Especially among those who want only to ease the pain of living. The trend was particularly noticeable among white men with less schooling. Conclusion: “No other U.S. ethnic group, and no other country, experienced such a dramatic reversal of fortune.” Men and women do not live by their income alone, but by their spirit. And that spirit, the evidence suggests, is sagging.
The question that Thomas Carlyle posed a couple of centuries ago remains relevant, if not paramount. “Is the condition of the English working people wrong; so wrong that rational working men cannot, will not, and even should not rest quiet under it?” The answer remains disturbingly the same: Yes! For time has come not only to talk about this problem but to address it forthrightly.
How bad—and how good—is America’s condition today? Come, let us count the ways: Family ties remain strong, and the divorce rate is far lower than when it peaked at the end of the 1970s. But more than a quarter of the population lives alone. People marry later in life and tend to have fewer children. The percentage of children living at home with their married parents had dropped from 73 percent in 1960 to 46 percent by 2014. And the growth of single-parent households has proceeded in step with the increase in spending on welfare programs like food stamps, government-provided housing, cash payments, Earned Income Tax Credits, disability insurance, and Medicaid. At last count, the government—that is We the People—was spending more than $1 trillion a year on all these handouts. Approve or disapprove of individual programs, together they cost a pretty penny.
And what about the sense of vocation that drives people to get up every morning and set the world in motion? The state of the Union may be sound, but what about the state of its people? If there isn’t a checklist to go by in evaluating the health of the American people, there ought to be, and it could start with family, dedication to one’s work, and a sense of shared community and faith. Let’s go down the list and see how Americans are doing.
family, it’s clear enough, ain’t what she used to be. The Puritan work ethic has ebbed year after year and decade after decade as Americans have grown softer and flabbier. To quote one study out of the White House, for whatever such studies are worth: “For more than 60 years, the share of American men between the ages of 25 to 54, or ‘prime-age men,’ in the labor force has been declining.”
In 1968, white men without college degrees had a 96 percent rate of participation in the labor force; by 2015, that rate had dropped to 79 percent. This sad trend was even more evident among black American men. No wonder that a whole generation—black, white, and other—comes to resemble a tinderbox waiting for someone to put a match to it with all too foreseeable results: tensions between cops and those they’re supposed to serve and protect, higher rates of murder in metropolitan centers, and so predictably on.
HERE’S a statistic that stands out: The percent of high-school seniors who self-report using illegal drugs remains firm at a quarter of that vulnerable and combustible segment of the population. Meanwhile, addiction to meth, heroin and prescription drugs continues to plague small-town and rural America. This country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figure that overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than in 1999 (www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html) and that deaths related to heroin overdose were four times higher in 2015 than in 2010 (www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/heroin.html).Drug cartels and associated gang operations are booming. Our social bonds with one another seem to have worn dangerously thin.
But cheer up: This is a report on the decline of American mores, not their fall. It’s just an alarm, not the tolling of the final hour of the American dream, which lives on as strong as ever. Or else why would so many millions still be flocking to these shores? So let freedom ring. It turns out to be an all-purpose solvent for whatever passing social problems now vex us.