Bursting the Bubble of Affluent Ignorance

26 Feb 2021

A new documentary puts faces to research on America’s growing class gap in terms of the social capital that leads to people’s ability to live their own definition of a full and happy life, following and filming real people over the course of a year.

STI Experts

W. Bradford Wilcox - Director of the National Marriage Project and Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, and long-time STI collaborator – has been researching, publishing and lecturing for many years about the numerous factors that keep less educated, less affluent Americans from living the American dream. Now, as co-research author of the short documentary video “The Social Divide,” Wilcox would have us step out of our bubbles to see with our own eyes how working-class and poor Americans are increasingly stuck in a vicious circle of limited access to the things that most fulfill all of us.  

The presentation analyzed the American Community Survey, sponsored by the U.S. Census, drawing upon data from more than 6,500 residents of the Reno, Nevada metropolitan area and 8,500 residents of the Chattanooga, Tennessee area in 2016. Data from the National Survey of Family Life, a 2018 survey of more than 1,000 Americans across the nation that also included an oversample of more than 100 residents of the Reno area plus 100 more for the Chattanooga area was also taken into account. The producers followed five families in the sample cities. Though the focus included cities disparate in geography and lifestyle, the research revealed commonalities in self-reported keys to happiness, concluding that all across the US, people with strong ties to family, faith, work and community involvement are the most likely to be very happy with their lives.

The less educated and less affluent are increasingly disconnected from these pillars of flourishing.  Even though the old adage “money doesn’t buy happiness” has much truth to it, the lack of it increasingly restricts people’s access to the things that do.

People with more education rate their lives as happier, with 72% of the college educated, and only 37% of those without a high school education saying that they are happy. Affluence has a similar correlation.  People who work are also much more likely to self-report that they are very happy, in practically the same percentages as the education divide, with 73% in full-time employment and 34% of the unemployed reporting high levels of well-being.

These conditions are interrelated. For example, 91% of college-educated men in Chattanooga have full-time employment, while only 52% of those without high school diplomas do.  In the 60s, this gap was considerably smaller, with only 9% fewer less-educated men in full-time employment.

Wilcox explains, “What we have seen in the last 50 years is that fewer and fewer men are in the labor force, particularly those who don’t have high school degrees.”  This matters, he continues, not only because of low or no income, but also because these people are more likely to be depressed and hopeless about their own lives. 

With respect to family structure, the percentages are very similar, with 80% of married people very happy compared to only half of single people. Wilcox’s research reveals that the more educated and affluent are significantly more likely to work through the difficulties that challenge all couples, rather than divorcing. The lower end of the spectrum of education and income are “much more likely to experience family instability, much less likely to get and stay married,” he reminds us. Marriage, it turns out, is more than a piece of paper.  The children of cohabitating couples are overwhelmingly more likely to experience family instability than are those of married parents, setting them in a track that makes upward mobility much more difficult.

The poor and working class are also significantly less likely to participate in religious services, despite the fact that people who attend faith services are 15% more likely to report happiness. Community service, too, is twice as likely among the more educated and affluent.  “Americans who are connected are much more likely to be flourishing,” Wilcox adds.

Societal trends away from these four social institutions are widespread.  Yet we cannot ignore that they are hitting the poor and working class much harder than they do the upper classes, feeding the social divide.