At a recent dinner party, it was wondered why our society appears to be pulling apart. I observed that sometimes unfortunate consequences flow from otherwise benign changes. I illustrated with a “tale of two families,” both known to me in my rural central Illinois setting.

When I was a boy post-World War II, small towns and cities not too different from mine tended to have a more diverse and balanced economic mix than today, or so I aver. There would be a small manufacturer or two, generally family owned; a banker or two; several doctors; a number of independent main street businesses; factory workers, school janitors, farmers.

The leading families did indeed, in my town at least, live on a hill, and there were the right and wrong sides of the railroad track. Yet, the bankers’ children went to the same local public school along with the janitors’ kids. Sometimes their kids even married. Most families, certainly the factory workers who often car-pooled to one of the CAT plants in Peoria, considered themselves properly middle class.

This brings me to the two families I use to illustrate how we have tended to pull apart in socioeconomic terms since then.

The simple table accompanying this writing shows how two rather typical families on the same tree-lined block back then have seen their grandchildren pulled far apart in income and residential location.

In 1970, Ron Anderson worked at CAT, earning about $50,000 in today’s dollars; his wife Nancy was a stay-at-home mom, as were most. Down at the end of the block, general practitioner Dr. Jim Smith earned, say, $150,000; wife Susan, an RN, stayed home with their young children. The ratio of the doc’s income to that of the factory worker, about 3-1. Both were solidly middle class.

Half a century later, their grandchildren are in markedly different situations. Grandson Ron Anderson works at a hog slaughtering plant (the grandad’s good job at CAT no longer existing), earning about $25,000 a year; wife Marilee works, out of necessity, at Walmart, almost full time, for about $15,000. Thus, a total of $40,000 a year.

Dr. Jim Smith III is a specialist earning about $250,000 a year; his wife, Betsy, also an MD, also earns $250,000, or more. They live in a gated community in suburban Chicago, near a medical center. Their total income of half a million dollars a year is at least 12 times that of the Ron Anderson family.

In 1970, there were few single-parent families. Today, there are many single-parent households in small-town America, the mom’s education often stopped at high school by the demands of parenting. These often-stressed-out mothers earn maybe $15,000 a year in minimum-wage jobs, or from welfare. Their income is but 1/33rd or less that of the Smiths. The single moms’ (there are a tiny number of single-dad households) parenting skills are limited at best, though there are exceptions, as always.

Over about two generations, family situations have in many cases like these pulled far apart, for three simple and otherwise benign reasons: women work today, and at any positions to which they aspire, and, third, like kinds marry.

If there is anything to what I observe here — and you can look around you to see if I am right or not — what to do? I am not a parent, so I am the last person who should be giving advice, yet that has never stopped me before.

First, much more attention should be given by community organizations and schools to coaching young parents, especially those with limited positive support systems, about how to nurture and support the educational aspirations of their children. This coaching should encourage the setting of high expectations for educational achievement and career success. Chinese families probably go overboard in this regard, yet it apparently helps generate high-achieving outcomes.

Second, since teen birth rates are down dramatically in the past 20 years, we should learn more about why this has occurred and do all we can to encourage the trendline down even further.

Third, traditional marriage rates are down among young people. We need to understand better the consequences of this, both bad and maybe good, and of what society might do to nudge young people to develop positive game plans for any parenting that is in their futures.

For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.

For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.

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