The funny thing about 'fellow Americans'

  • Article by: MITCH PEARLSTEIN
  • Updated: November 16, 2013 - 4:07 PM

I asked 39 well-versed people what they thought we knew about the actual lives lived by those less lucky. The short consensus answer was that most of us haven’t a clue.


Boy Scouts of America and Cub Scout troops carry a large American flag during the LibertyFest Fourth of July parade in Edmond, Okla., Monday, July 4, 2011.

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At the risk of implying that we should all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” how well do you think Americans know and feel for each other?

In particular, how well do you think Americans in the main understand and empathize with low-income Americans?

Do you think citizens who have never been incarcerated have an accurate sense of the actual lives lived by those who have?

Or what about the children of those who are or have been incarcerated? To what extent do you think Americans who never have been incarcerated understand the lives lived by those girls and boys?

And beyond 600 million hands clasped warmly around camp fires, what would you say are the sources of “glue” holding our society together? (Stay tuned for a no-longer-possible ecumenical moment from when I attended P.S. 215 in New York City in the “less enlightened” 1950s.)

Over the last year I asked 39 exceptionally well-versed men and women questions like those above, in face-to-face interviews from New England to California, for a book I’m writing about how very high nonmarital birthrates and divorce rates are contributing to deepening class divisions in the United States and what our nation might come to look like as well as be as a result. (Early warning: It’s not always pretty.)

The short consensus answer from the interviewees was that most Americans barely have a clue of the actual lives lived by those a lot less lucky. They routinely acknowledged that they barely had a clue themselves.

The ignorance that enormous numbers of mainstream Americans are assumed to have about the daily realities of Americans holding onto lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder is both cause and effect of class divisions that can be sharp already. But what might we come to look like if and when shared experiences and understandings shrink even more, and common ground erodes even further, in significant part because of the reinforcing impediments of family fragmentation? Impediments the United States leads the industrial world in, with more than 40 percent of all U.S. babies now born outside of marriage?

By “reinforcing impediments of family fragmentation,” I mean the ways in which children growing up in single-parent homes are more likely, for example, to do more poorly educationally and occupationally than they otherwise might, with subsequent generations of their own children and grandchildren also likely to do less well. If interviewees think ties among Americans are in rough shape now, they should know these ties are likely to grow even rougher in the future.

Nothing respondents had to say, of course, should be read as proof of anything about our future. They’re smart, not seers. But their thoughts are unusually well-informed and deserve to be taken seriously.

Such is the case with this comment from a leader in several fields, including social services for men and women in desperate need:

“My quick answer is I don’t think Americans know the depth and breadth of America’s really disorganized families, fragmented families, families where there are numbers of half-brothers and half-sisters and there’s no men in their lives.

“They move frequently, and there are financial challenges all the time. People are frequently leaving households to go to one institution or another — a group home, prison or whatever — and then coming back. I don’t think most Americans, across the political spectrum, have a clue about that kind of instability.”

The same is true of this next one, from a well-known social scientist. I had asked him whether he thought average Americans have a decent sense of the lives of men who go back and forth to prison. “I’m pretty sure they have no clue about the lives of these people,” he said. “I haven’t done any systematic interviewing on this, but I can tell you that when I lecture about these subjects around the country, people are invariably shocked by what I report.”

I asked for a shock-inducing example.

After an audible sigh, he said, “There are almost twice as many African-American children with a parent who has served time in prison for a year or more before the kid reaches 14 than white children with the same experience — even though there are six times as many white children as there are black children.”

But “knowing” or “not knowing” about people who might be hurting is one thing; what about actually having empathy for them and their predicaments? Another academic, a well-known historian this time, argued that Americans are more likely to be disdainful of poor people than empathetic about their plights. As summary judgments go, hers was more severe than the norm.

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