The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray (1996)
Part IV. Living Together
Chapter 21. The Way We Are Headed
In this penultimate chapter we speculate about the impact of cognitive stratification on American life and government. Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:
· An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
· A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
· A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution.
Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose. Among the other casualties of this process would be American civil society as we have known it. Like other apocalyptic visions, this one is pessimistic, perhaps too much so. On the other hand, there is much to be pessimistic about.
RECAPITULATION: THE INVISIBLE MIGRATION
As we described in Part I, the cognitive elite refers to people in the top percentiles of cognitive ability who, over the course of the American twentieth century, have been part of a vast but nearly invisible migration. The migration does not reveal itself in masses of humanity crossing frontiers but in countless bits of data about the movement of individuals across the levels of society. Like all other great migrations, this one too will transform both the place people left and the place they go.
At the beginning of the century, the great majority of people in the top 5 or 10 percent of the intelligence distribution were not college educated, often not even high school educated, and they lived their lives scattered almost indistinguishably among the rest of the population. Their interests were just as variegated. Many were small businessmen or farmers, sharing the political outlook of those groups. Many worked on assembly lines or as skilled craftsmen. The top of the cognitive ability distribution probably included leaders of the labor movement and of community organizations. Among the smart women, a few had professional careers of their own, but most of them kept house, reared children, and were often the organizing forces of their religious and social communities.
People from the top of the cognitive ability distribution lived next door to people who were not so smart, with whose children their own children went to school. They socialized with, went to church with, and married people less bright than themselves as a matter of course. This was not an egalitarian utopia that we are trying to recall. On the contrary, communities were stratified by wealth, religion, class, ethnic background, and race. The stratifications may have been stark, even bitter, but people were not stratified by cognitive ability.
As the century progressed, the historical mix of intellectual abilities at all levels of American society thinned as intelligence rose to the top. The upper end of the cognitive ability distribution has been increasingly channeled into higher education, especially the top colleges and professional schools, thence into high-IQ occupations and senior managerial positions, as Part I detailed. The upshot is that the scattered brightest of the early twentieth century have congregated, forming a new class.
Membership in this new class, the cognitive elite, is gained by high IQ; neither social background, nor ethnicity, nor lack of money will bar the way. But once in the club, usually by age eighteen, members begin to share much else as well. Among other things, they will come to run much of the country’s business. In the private sector, the cognitive elite dominates the ranks of CEOs and the top echelon of corporate executives. Smart people have no doubt always had the advantage in commerce and industry, but their advantage has grown as the barriers against the “wrong” nationalities, ethnicities, religions, or socioeconomic origins have been dismantled. Meanwhile, the leaders in medicine, law, science, print journalism, television, the film and publishing industries, and the foundation world come largely from the cognitive elite. Almost all of the leading figures in academia are part of it. In Washington, thetop echelons of federal officialdom, special interest groups, think tanks, and the rest of Washington’s satellite institutions draw heavily from the cognitive elite. At the municipal level, the local business and political movers are often members of the cognitive elite.
GIVING MERITOCRACY ITS DUE
Part I mostly described a success story—success for the people lucky enough to be part of the cognitive elite but also a success for the nation as a whole. Before turning to the dark side, we should be explicit about the good things that flow from the invisible migration.
Chief among them is the triumph of an American ideal. Americans believe that each person should be able to go as far as talent and hard work will take him, and much of what we have described is the realization of that conviction, for people with high IQs. The breadth of the change was made possible by twentyth-century technology, which expanded the need for people with high IQs by orders of magnitude. But the process itself has been a classic example of people free to respond to opportunity and of an economic system that created opportunities in abundance.
Life has been increasingly good for the cognitive elite, as it has displaced the socioeconomic elites of earlier times. We showed in Part I the increasing financial rewards for brains, but money is only a part of the cornucopia. In the far-from-idyllic past when most of the people at the top of the cognitive distribution were farmers, housewives, workers, and shop owners, many of them were also frustrated, aware that they had capabilities that were not being used. The graph on page 56 that traced the steep rise in high-IQ jobs over the course of the century was to some important extent a picture of people moving from unsatisfying jobs to lucrative and interesting ones.
Technology has not just created more jobs for the cognitive elite but revolutionized the way they may be done. Modern transportation has expanded the realm in which people work. Beyond that, physical separation is becoming irrelevant. A scientist passionately devoted to the study of a certain protein or an investment analyst following a market can be in daily electronic conversation with people throughout the world who share the same passion, passing drafts of work back and forth, calling up data files, doing analyses that would have required a mainframe computer and a covey of assistants only a few years ago—all while sitting alone at a computer, which need not be in an office, but can as easily be in a beach house overlooking the ocean. Across the occupational domain of those who work primarily with their minds, the explosion of computer and communications technologies has liberated and expanded creativity, productivity, and personal freedom. There may be some costs of this physical isolation, but many people are happier and more fulfilled as a result of the reach of modern technology.
For the nation as a whole, the invisible migration has surely brought benefits as well. We cannot measure the gains precisely, but they are the inevitable side effect of greater efficiency in identifying intellectual talent and channeling it into high-IQ occupations. Compared to 1900 or even 1950, America in the 1990s is getting more productivity out of its stock of human capital, and this presumably translates into more jobs, gains in GNP, and other effects that produce more wealth for the society at large.
So what’s the problem? The old stratifications are fading, erased by a greater reliance on what people often call merit. Millions of people have benefited from the changes—including us. Would we prefer less of a meritocracy? Put that way, no—but “no” for larger reasons as well. The invisible migration is in many ways an expression of what America is all about.
ISOLATION WITHIN THE COGNITIVE ELITE
What worries us first about the emerging cognitive elite is its coalescence into a class that views American society increasingly through a lens of its own. In The End of Equality, which analyzes the stratification of American society from a vantage point different from ours, social critic Mickey Kaus describes the isolation we have in mind. He identifies it broadly with the decline of “the public sphere.”1 The end of the military draft, the social segregation of the school system, and the divisive effects of the underclass are among his suspects, and each has doubtless played an important role independent (to some degree) of the effects of the cognitive stratification that we described in Part I. Thinking about the way these forces had affected his own life, Kaus remarked: “I entered a good Ivy League college in 1969. I doubt I’ve had a friend or regular social acquaintance since who scored less than an 1100 on his or her SAT boards.”2
Kaus is probably right. The reason why this is a problem is captured by a remark attributed to the New Yorker’s one-time movie critic Pauline Kael following Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1972: “Nixon can’t have won; no one I know voted for him.”3 When the members of the cognitive elite (of whatever political convictions) hang out with each other, often exclusively with each other, they find it hard to understand what ordinary people think.
The problem is not simply that smart people rise to the top more efficiently these days. If the only quality that CEOs of major corporations and movie directors and the White House inner circle had in common were their raw intelligence, things would not be so much different now than they have always been, for to some degree the most successful have always been drawn disproportionately from the most intelligent. But the invisible migration of the twentieth century has done much more than let the most intellectually able succeed more easily. It has also segregated them and socialized them. The members of the cognitive elite are likely to have gone to the same kinds of schools, live in similar neighborhoods, go to the same kinds of theaters and restaurants, read the same magazines and newspapers, watch the same television programs, even drive the same makes of cars.
They also tend to be ignorant of the same things. They watch far less commercial television than the average American. Their movie-going tends to be highly selective. They seldom read the national tabloids that have the nation’s largest circulation figures or listen to the talk radio that has become a major form of national communication for other parts of America. This does not mean that the cognitive elite spend their lives at the ballet and reading Proust. Theirs is not a high culture, but it is distinctive enough to set them off from the rest of the country in many important ways.
The isolation of the cognitive elite is by no means complete, but the statistical tendencies are strong, and the same advances in transportation and communication that are so enhancing the professional lives of the cognitive elite will make their isolation from the rest of the public that much greater. As their common ground with the rest of society decreases, their coalescence as a new class increases. The traditional separations between the business world, the entertainment world, the university intellectuals, and government are being replaced by an axis of bright people that runs through society. They already sense their kinship across these spheres of interest. This too will increase with time.
THE COALITION OF THE COGNITIVE ELITE AND THE AFFLUENT
The trends we have described would not constitute a threat to the republic if the government still played the same role in civic life that it played through the Eisenhower administration. As recently as 1960, it did not make a lot of political difference what the cognitive elite thought, because its power to impose those values on the rest of America was limited. In most of the matters that counted—the way the schools were run, keeping order in the public square, opening a business or running it—the nation remained decentralized. The still inchoate cognitive elite in 1960 may have had ideas about how it wanted to move the world but, like Archimedes, it lacked a place to stand.
We need not become embroiled here in a debate about whether the centralization of authority since 1960 (or 1933, for those who take a longer view) was right or wrong. We may all agree as a statement of fact that such centralization occurred, through legislation, Supreme Court decisions, and accretions of executive authority in every domain of daily life. With it came something that did not exist before: a place for the cognitive elite to stand. With the end of the historic limits on the federal reach, everything was up for grabs. If one political group could get enough votes on the Supreme Court, it could move the Constitution toward its goals. If it could get enough votes in Congress, it could do similarly with legislation.
Through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the battle veered back and forth, with groups identifiably “liberal” and “conservative” bloodying each other’s noses in accustomed ways. But in the Bush and Clinton administrations, the old lines began to blur. One may analyze these trends conventionally in terms of the evolution of party politics. The rise of the New Democrats and the breakup of the Reagan coalition are the conventional way of looking at the evolution. We think something else is happening as well, with potential dangers: the converging interests of the cognitive elite with the larger population of affluent Americans.
For most of the century, intellectuals and the affluent have been antagonists. Intellectuals have been identified with the economic left and the cultural avant-garde, while the affluent have been identified with big business and cultural conservatism. These comfortable categories have become muddled in recent years, as faculty at the top universities put together salaries, consulting fees, speeches, and royalties that garner them six-figure incomes while the New York Review of Books shows up in the mailbox of young corporate lawyers. The very bright have become much more uniformly affluent than they used to be while, at the same time, the universe of affluent people has become more densely populated by the very bright, as Part I described. Not surprisingly, the interests of affluence and the cognitive elite have begun to blend.
This melding has its limits, particularly when the affluent person is not part of the cognitive elite. The high-IQ Stanford professor with the best-selling book and the ordinary-IQ fellow who makes the same income with his small chain of shoe stores are hardly allies on everything. But in looking ahead to alliances and social trends, it is still useful to think in terms of their increasing commonalities because, as any good economist or politician will point out, there are theoretical interests and practical interests. The Stanford professor’s best-selling book may be a diatribe against the punitive criminal justice system, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t vote with his feet to move to a safe neighborhood. Or his book may be a withering attack on outdated family norms, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t acting like an old-fashioned father in looking after the interests of his children—and if that means sending his children to a lily-white private school so that they get a good education, so be it. Meanwhile, the man with the chain of shoe stores may be politically to the right of the Stanford professor, but he is looking for the same safe neighborhood and the same good schools for his children. And even if he is more likely to vote Republican than the professor, he is unlikely to be the rugged individualist of yore. On the contrary, he is likely to have become quite comfortable with the idea that government is there to be used. He and the professor may not be so far apart at all on how they want to live their own personal lives and how government might serve those joint and important interests.
Consider the sheer size of this emerging coalition and how quickly the affluent class as a whole (not just the cognitive elite) is growing. What is “affluence”? The median answer in 1992 when the Roper Organization asked people how much annual income they would need “to fulfill all your dreams” was $82,100, which indicates where affluence is thought to start by most Americans.4 For purposes of this exercise, we will define affluence as beginning at an annual family income of $100,000 in 1990 dollars, about three times the median family income. By that definition, more than one out of twenty American families is affluent, roughly double what it was a decade earlier.5Furthermore, this growth has accompanied stagnant real income for the average family. Here is the last of the many graphs we have asked you to examine in this book. In some ways, it is more loaded with social implications than any that have come before.
In the 1970s, economic growth began to enlarge the affluent class
Sources: Median family income: U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991, Table B-4, supplemented with U.S. Bureau of the Census 1993, Table B-11. For families with incomes over $100,000, data from 1967-1990 are taken from U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991, Table B-3; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993, Table B-6. Figures for 1947-1964 are estimated from U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975, Series G 269-282, adjusted for differences in definition of the family.
The graph illustrates the reason for the intense recent interest in American income inequality. From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, average family income rose. Then in 1973, median family income hit a peak. Part of the reason for the subsequent lack of progress has been the declining real wages for many categories of blue-collar jobs, described in Chapter 4. Part of the reason has been the decline in two-parent families (economic progress continued, though modestly, for families consisting of married couples). In any case, the average American family has been stuck at about the same place economically for more than twenty years.
For the affluent, the story diverges sharply. Until the early 1970s, the proportion of families with $100,000 in 1990 purchasing power increased slowly and in tandem with the growth in median family income. But after progress for the average family stalled, it continued for the affluent. The steepest gains occurred during the 1980s, and Ronald Reagan’s policies of the 1980s are commonly thought to be an important force (in praise or blame) for increasing the number of affluent. But economists know that there is a difficulty with this explanation, as you will see when you compare the 1970s with the 1980s. The rising proportion of families with incomes of more than $100,000 since the early 1970s does not seem to be a function of any particular political party or policy, except insofar as those policies encourage an expanding economy. It has gone with gains in real per capita GNP (indicated by the unshaded bars in the graphic) whether those gains occurred under Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, or George Bush.6 There is no reason to think that this trend will be much different under Bill Clinton or his successors, if the economy grows. The net result is that the affluent will constitute a major portion of the population in the relatively near future, and they will increasingly be constituted of the most talented.
Try to envision what will happen when 10 or 20 percent of the population has enough income to bypass the social institutions they don’t like in ways that only the top 1 percent used to be able to do. Robert Reich has called it the “secession of the successful.”7 The current symbol of this phenomenon is the gated community, secure behind its walls and guard posts, but many other signs are visible. The fax, modem, and Federal Express have already made the U.S. Postal Service nearly irrelevant to the way that the affluent communicate, for example. A more portentous development is the private court system that businesses are beginning to create. Or the mass exodus from public schools among those living in cities, if they can afford it. Or the proliferation of private security forces for companies, apartment houses, schools, malls, and anywhere else where people with money want to be safe.
Try to envision what will happen to the political process. Even as of the early 1990s, the affluent class is no longer a thin layer of rich people but a political bloc to be reckoned with. Speaking in round numbers (for the precise definitions of both groups are arbitrary), a coalition of the cognitive elite and the affluent class now represents something well in excess of 5 percent of families and, because of their much higher than average voting rates, somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 15 percent of the voters.8 The political clout of this group extends well beyond its mere voting size because of its financial contributions to campaigns and because this group contributes a large proportion of local political organizers. The combined weight of the cognitive elite and the affluent is already considerable. But we asked you to envision tomorrow, not today. Do you think that the rich in America already have too much power? Or do you think the intellectuals already have too much power? We are suggesting that a “yes” to both questions is probably right. And if you think the power of these groups is too great now, just watch what happens as their outlooks and interests converge.
Cynical readers will be asking what else is new. The privileged have always used the law to their advantage. Our own analysis is hardly novel; it is taken straight from a book of essays written more than two centuries ago, The Federalist. People are not naturally angelic but self-interested—else, as Publius pointed out, governments would not be necessary in the first place. Politically, people form factions to pursue their common ends. Give them access to government power to further those ends, and they will take advantage of it. The only modest additions we make to these ancient truths are two propositions: First, as of the 1990s, the constitutional restraints on how a faction may use government to further its ends have loosened. Second, an unprecedented coalition of the smart and the rich will take advantage of this new latitude in new ways.
FACING REALITY ABOUT THE UNDERCLASS
What new ways? There are many possibilities, but the central ones all involve the underclass. We fear that a new kind of conservatism is becoming the dominant ideology of the affluent—not in the social tradition of an Edmund Burke or in the economic tradition of an Adam Smith but “conservatism” along Latin American lines, where to be conservative has often meant doing whatever is necessary to preserve the mansions on the hills from the menace of the slums below. In the case of the United States, the threat comes from an underclass that has been with American society for some years but has been the subject of unrealistic analysis and ineffectual, often counterproductive policy. The new coalition is already afraid of the underclass. In the next few decades, it is going to have a lot more to be afraid of. Now is the time to bring together from many chapters throughout the book the implications of cognitive stratification for the underclass.
The Fate of Children
Statistically, it is not good for children to be born either to a single mother or a married couple of low cognitive ability. But the greatest problems afflict children unlucky enough to be born to and reared by unmarried mothers who are below average in intelligence—about 20 percent of children currently being born.9 They tend to do badly, socially and economically. They tend to have low cognitive ability themselves. They suffer disproportionately from behavioral problems. They will be disproportionately represented in prisons. They are less likely to marry than others and will themselves produce large proportions of the children born to single women of low intelligence.
Attempts to compensate for cognitive disadvantage at birth have shown how extraordinarily hard it is to do. Many readers no doubt find the plight of children to be among the most compelling arguments for government activism, as we do. But inadequate nutrition, physical abuse, emotional neglect, lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic home environment—all the things that worry us when we think about the welfare of children—are very difficult to improve from outside the home when the single mother is incompetent. Incompetent mothers are highly concentrated among the least intelligent, and their numbers are growing. In Chapter 15, we discussed differential fertility—a bloodless term—and suggested that the nation is experiencing dysgenic pressure—another bloodless term. In the metric of human suffering, increasing numbers of children are born into the conditions we most deplore and the conditions that government is most helpless to affect.
What happens to the child of low intelligence who survives childhood and reaches adulthood trying to do his best to be a productive citizen? Out of the many problems we have just sketched, this is the one we choose to italicize: All of the problems that these children experience will become worse rather than better as they grow older, for the labor market they will confront a few decades down the road is going to be much harder for them to cope with than the labor market is now. There will still be jobs for low-skill labor, mostly with service businesses and private households, but the natural wage for those jobs will be low. Attempts to increase their wage artificially (by raising the minimum wage, for example, or mandating job benefits) may backfire by making alternatives to human labor more affordable and, in many cases, by making the jobs disappear altogether. People in the bottom quartile of intelligence are becoming not just increasingly expendable in economic terms; they will sometime in the not-too-distant future become a net drag. In economic terms and barring a profound change in direction for our society, many people will be unable to perform that function so basic to human dignity: putting more into the world than they take out.
Perhaps a revolution in teaching technology will drastically increase the productivity returns to education for people in the lowest quartile of intelligence, overturning our pessimistic forecast. But there are no harbingers of any such revolution as we write. And unless such a revolution occurs, all the fine rhetoric about “investing in human capital” to “make America competitive in the twenty-first century” is not going to be able to overturn this reality: For many people, there is nothing they can learn that will repay the cost of the teaching.
The Emerging White Underclass
The dry tinder for the formation of an underclass community is a large number of births to single women of low intelligence in a concentrated spatial area. Sometime in the next few decades it seems likely that American whites will reach the point of conflagration. The proportion of white illegitimate births (including Latinos) reached 22 percent in 1991.10 There is nothing about being Caucasian that must slow down the process. Britain, where the white illegitimacy ratio, which was much lower than the American white ratio as recently as 1979, hit 32 percent in 1992 with no signs of slowing down.
When 22 percent of all births are to single women, the proportion in low-income communities is perhaps twice that. In the NLSY, 43 percent of all births to white women who were below the poverty line were illegitimate, compared to 7 percent for all white women anywhere above the poverty line.11 In the nation at large, we know from the 1992 Census Bureau study of fertility that women with college, degrees contribute only 4 percent of white illegitimate babies, while women with a high school education or less contribute 82 percent. Women with family incomes of $75,000 or more contribute 1 percent of white illegitimate babies, while women with family incomes under $20,000 contribute 69 percent.12 White illegitimacy is overwhelmingly a lower-class phenomenon.
In the past, whites have not had an “underclass” as such, because the whites who might qualify have been too scattered among the working class. Instead, white communities in America had a few streets on the outskirts of town inhabited by the people who couldn’t seem to cope and skid rows of unattached white men in large cities, but these scatterings were seldom large enough to make up a neighborhood. An underclass needs a critical mass, and white America has not had one. But if the overall white illegitimacy ratio is 22 percent—probably somewhere in the 40 percent range in low-income communities—and rising fast, the question arises: At what point is critical mass reached? How much illegitimacy can a community tolerate? Nobody knows, but the historical fact is that the trendlines on black crime, dropout from the labor force, and illegitimacy all shifted sharply upward as the overall black illegitimacy ratio passed 25 percent and the rate in low-income black communities moved past 50 percent.
We need not rely on the analogy with the black experience. White illegitimacy is also overwhelmingly a lower-cognitive-class phenomenon, as we detailed in Chapter 8. Three-quarters of all white illegitimate births are to women below average in IQ, and 45 percent are to women with IQs under 90.13 These women are poorly equipped for the labor market, often poorly equipped to be mothers, and there is no reason to think that the outcomes for their children will be any better than the outcomes have been for black children. Meanwhile, as never-married mothers grow in numbers, the dynamics of the public housing market (where they will probably continue to be welcome) and the private housing market (where they will not) will foster increasing concentrations of whites with high unemployment, high crime, high illegitimacy, and low cognitive ability, creating communities that look very much like the inner-city neighborhoods that people now tend to associate with minorities.
The white cognitive elite is unlikely to greet this development sympathetically. On the contrary, much of white resentment and fear of the black underclass has been softened by the complicated mixture of white guilt and paternalism that has often led white elites to excuse behavior in blacks that they would not excuse in whites. This does not mean that white elites will abandon the white underclass, but it does suggest that the means of dealing with their needs are likely to be brusque.
Spatial Concentration, Low Cognitive Ability, and Underclass Behavior
As the patience of whites for other whites wears thin, the black inner city will simultaneously be getting worse rather than better. Various scholars, led by William Julius Wilson, have described the outmigration of the ablest blacks that has left the inner city without its former leaders and role models.14 Given a mean black IQ of about 85 and the link between socioeconomic status and IQ within ethnic populations, the implication is that the black inner city has a population with a mean IQ somewhere in the low 80s at best, with a correspondingly small tail in the above-average range.’15
What is the minimum level of cognitive resources necessary to sustain a community at any given level of social and economic complexity? For sustaining a village of a few hundred people in a premodern society, the minimum average level is probably quite modest. What is it for sustaining a modern community? The question is of enormous practical significance yet remains innocent of any empirical investigation whatsoever. Perhaps the crucial feature is the average cognitive ability. Perhaps it is the size of the cadre of high-ability people. Perhaps it is the weight of the population at low end of the distribution. No one knows. Whatever the details, a prima facie case exists that the cognitive resources in the contemporary inner city have fallen below the minimum level. What looked like a rising tide of social problems a generation ago has come to look more like a fundamental breakdown in social organization.
One may look for signs that these communities are about to recover. The crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s has ebbed, for example, although crack is cheaper than ever, as the savage effects of the drug became evident to younger brothers and sisters. Black grass-roots efforts to restore the family and combat crime have increased in recent years. But counterpoised against these forces working on behalf of regeneration within the inner city is a powerful force working against it:. A large majority of the next generation of blacks in the inner city is growing up without fathers and with limited cognitive ability. The numbers continue to increase. The outmigration of the able continues.
While we can see how these trends might be reversed, which we describe in the next and final chapter, let us consider the prospect we face if they do not. This brings us to the denouement of our prognosis.
THE COMING OF THE CUSTODIAL STATE
When a society reaches a certain overall level of affluence, the haves begin to feel sympathy toward, if not guilt about, the condition of the have-nots. Thus dawns the welfare state—the attempt to raise the poor and the needy out of their plight. In what direction does the social welfare system evolve when a coalition of the cognitive elite and the affluent continues to accept the main tenets of the welfare state but are increasingly frightened of and hostile toward the recipients of help? When the coalition is prepared to spend money but has lost faith that remedial social programs work? The most likely consequence in our view is that the cognitive elite, with its commanding position, will implement an expanded welfare state for the underclass that also keeps it out from underfoot. Our label for this outcome is the custodial state.16 Should it come to pass, here is a scenario:
Over the next decades, it will become broadly accepted by the cognitive elite that the people we now refer to as the underclass are in that condition through no fault of their own but because of inherent shortcomings about which little can be done. Politicians and intellectuals alike will become much more open about the role of dysfunctional behavior in the underclass, accepting that addiction, violence, unavailability for work, child abuse, and family disorganization will keep most members of the underclass from fending for themselves. It will be agreed that the underclass cannot be trusted to use cash wisely. Therefore policy will consist of greater benefits, but these will be primarily in the form of services rather than cash. Furthermore, there will be new restrictions. Specifically, these consequences are plausible:
Child care in the inner city will become primarily the responsibility of the state. Infants will get better nutrition because they will be spending their days in day care centers from infancy. Children will get balanced diets because they will be eating breakfast, lunch, and perhaps supper at school. Day care centers and schools for elementary students will edge closer toward comprehensive care facilities, whose staff will try to provide not only education and medical care but to train children in hygiene, sexual socialization, socialization to the world of work, and other functions that the parents are deemed incapable of providing.
The homeless will vanish. One of the safer predictions is that sometime in the near future, the cognitive elite will join the broad public sentiment in favor of reasserting control over public spaces. It will become easier to consign mentally incompetent adults to custodial care. Perhaps the clinically borderline cases that now constitute a high proportion of the homeless will be required to reside in shelters, more elaborately equipped and staffed than most homeless shelters are today. Police will be returned their authority to roust people and enforce laws prohibiting disorderly conduct.
Strict policing and custodial responses to crime will become more acceptable and widespread. This issue could play out in several ways. The crime rate in affluent suburbs may be low enough to keep the pressure for reform low. But events in the early 1990s suggest that fear of crime is rising, and support for strict law enforcement is increasing.
One possibility is that a variety of old police practices—especially the stop-and-frisk—will quietly come back into use in new guises. New prisons will continue to be built, and the cells already available will be used more efficiently to incarcerate dangerous offenders (for example, by eliminating mandatory sentences for certain drug offenses and by incarcerating less serious offenders in camps rather than prisons). Technology will provide new options for segregating and containing criminals, as the electronic bracelets now being used to enforce house arrest (or perhaps “neighborhood arrest”) become more flexible and foolproof. Another possibility is that support will grow for a national system of identification cards, coded with personal information including criminal record. The possibilities for police surveillance and control of behavior are expanding rapidly. Until recently, the cognitive elite has predominantly opposed the use of such technology. In a few years, we predict, it will not.
The underclass will become even more concentrated spatially than it is today. The expanded network of day care centers, homeless shelters, public housing, and other services will always be located in the poorest part of the inner city, which means that anyone who wants access to them will have to live there. Political support for such measures as relocation of people from the inner city to the suburbs, never strong to begin with, will wither altogether. The gaping cultural gap between the habits of the underclass and the habits of the rest of society, far more impassable than a simple economic gap between poor and not poor or the racial gap of black and white, will make it increasingly difficult for children who have grown up in the inner city to function in the larger society even when they want to.
The underclass will grow. During the 1980s, scholars found evidence that the size of the underclass was no longer expanding.17 But even as they wrote, the welfare rolls, which had moved within a narrow range since the late 1970s, began to surge again. The government will try yet another round of the customary social programs—sex education, job training, parenting training, and the like—and they will be as ineffectual this round as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.18 Meanwhile, many low-income parents who try to do all the right things and pass their values on to their children will be increasingly unable to do so. They cannot propagate their norms in the face of a local culture in which illegitimacy, welfare, crime, and drugs are commonplace, and there is nothing magically invulnerable about them or their children. Some of the reforms we have described will be improvements—crime might actually drop in the inner city as well as in the other parts of town, for example—but the main effect will be to make it harder for the children in these solid and conventional working-class families to emulate their parents. Marriage, steady employment, and responsible behavior of many kinds will fall among the next generation, and some portion of the working class will become members of the underclass. Few children of those already in the underclass will escape.
Social budgets and measures for social control will become still more centralized. The growing numbers of illegitimate children born to poor women will have multiplier effects on social welfare budgets—directly and through increased indirect costs generated in the educational and law enforcement systems. As states become overwhelmed, the current cost sharing between the states and federal government will shift toward the federal budget. The mounting costs will also generate intense political pressure on Washington to do something. Unable to bring itself to do away with the welfare edifice—for by that time it will be assumed that social chaos will follow any radical cutback—the government will continue to try to engineer behavior through new programs and regulations. As time goes on and hostility toward the welfare-dependent increases, those policies are likely to become authoritarian and rely increasingly on custodial care.
Racism will reemerge in a new and more virulent form. The tension between what the white elite is supposed to think and what it is actually thinking about race will reach something close to a breaking point. This pessimistic prognosis must be contemplated: When the break comes, the result, as so often happens when cognitive dissonance is resolved, will be an overreaction in the other direction. Instead of the candor and realism about race that is so urgently needed, the nation will be faced with racial divisiveness and hostility that is as great as, or greater, than America experienced before the civil rights movement. We realize how outlandish it seems to predict that educated and influential Americans, who have been so puritanical about racial conversation, will openly revert to racism. We would not go so far as to say it is probable. It is, however, more than just possible. If it were to happen, all the scenarios for the custodial state would be more unpleasant—more vicious—than anyone can now imagine.
In short, by custodial state, we have in mind a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business. In its less benign forms, the solutions will become more and more totalitarian. Benign or otherwise, “going about its business” in the old sense will not be possible. It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the state.
Extrapolating from current trends, we project that the policies of custodialism will be not only tolerated but actively supported by a consensus of the cognitive elite. To some extent, we are not even really projecting but reporting. The main difference between the position of the cognitive elite that we portray here and the one that exists today is to some extent nothing more than the distinction between tacit and explicit.
If we wish to avoid this prospect for the future, we cannot count on the natural course of events to make things come out right. Now is the time to think hard about how a society in which a cognitive elite dominates and in which below-average cognitive ability is increasingly a handicap can also be a society that makes good on the fundamental promise of the American tradition: the opportunity for everyone, not just the lucky ones, to live a satisfying life. That is the task to which we now turn.