Paul Prather: Religious apathy adds to growing ranks of white underclass

From what I've seen, apathy toward religion just adds to its ranks

Contributing columnistFebruary 25, 2012 

Paul Prather

Recently in The New York Times, columnist Nicholas D. Kristof explained that what used to be the white working class now statistically constitutes a big chunk of the educational and economic underclass.

Talk of the "underclass" once was code for race, he wrote, but that idea is becoming obsolete. Increasingly, white people are joining its ranks.

Several other opinion columns and news stories have highlighted this same trend, in publications and on Web sites across the ideological spectrum.

Academic research demonstrates, for instance, that even as black Americans have closed the educational and financial gap with whites overall (which is happy news), whites without college educations keep falling ever further behind.

I've witnessed this sea change among working-class white families for years, with my own eyes, in my overwhelmingly white, rural county.

I've watched a downward spiral among the folks my congregation helps with its benevolence fund and among the potential tenants I encounter in my business leasing apartments. Literally, I see this almost every day.

As an eyewitness, I'll tell you how I think it started and why it's progressing.

First, several decades ago, small farms and union factory jobs began folding. Comparatively unskilled, marginally educated men once could make decent livings. As the farms shut down and the factories moved overseas, a lot of these men found it difficult, or nigh unto impossible, to earn meaningful wages.

Second, shifting cultural mores made divorce socially acceptable.

As blue-collar men became hard-pressed to make a living, family tensions rose. And troubled couples no longer faced a stigma if they split up. So they did.

Move forward. The farming and union factory jobs never came back.

You had, then, a generation of kids — the children of that previous group — who grew up in shattered and newly poor families, without the benefit of physically present fathers who went to work every day, who served as role models of self-respect and diligence.

Sometimes the divorced mothers had to hold down two "pink-collar" jobs to keep food on the table because the dads couldn't or wouldn't pay child support. These kids were raised by extended family or neighbors. Or nobody.

I personally know many exceptions, but too often the children grew up scarred by neglect. They turned angry, irresponsible, insecure and skeptical.

Who can blame them?

They're now 20 or 30 or 40 years old.

They don't trust anybody who's in authority.

They don't trust God much. A statistical detail of the new underclass is that the vast majority has no religious affiliation.

One study, by University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and others, found that 46 percent of college-educated whites regularly attend church. Among the least educated, it's 23 percent, down dramatically since the 1970s.

They don't have the money, familial encouragement, self-confidence or learned perseverance to pursue formal education. They're unemployed or, at best, hold part-time service jobs or low-end, temporary, manufacturing jobs.

They tend not to get married, because they can't afford to and don't trust marriage. Instead, they cohabit in brief, fragile relationships.

Then they have a child.

Among white women with less than 12th-grade educations, 65.4 percent of births now are to single women, syndicated columnist Clarence Page observed a couple of weeks ago, citing numbers from Charles Murray's book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

When difficulties strike, this young mother and father soon break up and move on to their next partners, who have no vested interest in the baby's well-being. Maybe those subsequent pairings produce additional children. Then those couples, too, break up. This continues ad infinitum.

The young man or young woman — or both — turns to prescription pills or methamphetamine for relief from this never-ending turmoil. Drug addiction and jail sentences make their troubles even darker and more intractable.

The children of this generation are on the way to becoming at least the third generation of adults in this decline. They will begin from even further behind.

I'm not condemning anyone. There but by the grace of God. I'm mainly reporting what I've seen with my own eyes, in my own back yard. I could tell you specific stories with names attached, but I have no desire to embarrass anybody.

The saddest thing is that there's no sure fix.

Traditionally, across various nations, races and cultures, two dependable paths out of poverty have been education and religion.

People escaped by working nights and going to trade school or college during the days. They became skilled workers or small-business owners or accountants. Barring that, they set aside dimes until they could send their kids to college.

Religious adherence provided a well-documented benefit called social uplift. That is, religious tenets encouraged the poor to stay married, stay sober, work hard and save money — behaviors that led to family stability and economic improvement. Religion also offered optimism and meaning in the face of despair.

Over time, families often were lifted out of poverty through their faith.

But the new underclass is heading in the opposite direction, not up and out, but further and further down.

Many appear disinclined to pursue education even when government aid is available. That's particularly true of the men, for some reason.

And, as I mentioned, a trait of the new underclass is its rejection of, or at least apathy toward, the church.

As one researcher told New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise about reversing this descent: "No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare."

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. Email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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