Two Times and a Journal Look at Class in America

Each for its own reasons, three of our major newspapers decided within months, and even days, of one another to publish a major series exploring class in America.

It started with the Los Angeles Times and its “New Deal” series, which debuted last October; then on May 13, the Wall Street Journal greeted readers with the first installment (subscription required) of its own “Moving Up: Challenges to the American Dream,” which startled the New York Times into rushing the opening essay of its own “Class Matters” series into print on May 15. Seldom has there been a better chance to compare and contrast the performance of three competitors widely viewed as the best of the best as they each grappled with a major treatment of the same elusive subject.

The Wall Street Journal led off its Friday the 13th sneak attack on the New York Times (newspapers love to play these Beat ya! games) with a headline (subscription required) that left no doubt as to the series’ premise: “As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls, Those in Bottom Rung Enjoy Better Odds in Europe.”

The piece, by David Wessel, effectively dismantled the idea of the American Dream with evidence that social mobility in the United States is no longer what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, even “class-bound Europe” might offer more of an opportunity to scale the ranks than America. Although most Americans still cling to the idea that “their country remains a land of unbounded opportunity,” as Wessel put it, leading economists and sociologists recently have accepted that not only does it matter who your daddy is, but it matters more now than it did thirty years ago.

The Journal article gives a good overview of research in the field, highlighting new studies by Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, Gary Solon of the University of Michigan, and Bhashkar Mazumder of the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago. But lest the conclusions of Bercker, Solon and Mazumder seem too depressing, Wessel tempers his opener with fond and frequent references to the life of Benjamin Franklin, the prototypical Everyman of unfettered social mobility.

Two days later, the New York Times anteed up with a long, rather windy introduction to its own class series, an essay that was striking, among other things, for its lack of actual reporting. It, too, included the obligatory Benjamin Franklin reference, as well as quotes from Becker and Solon.

Once it was done clearing its throat for the entire length of its opener, the Times in subsequent parts of its series served up an avalanche of detailed, if largely anecdotal, reporting. But in the process it essentially abandoned the sort of critical analysis of class in America over the past few decades that the Journal and, earlier, the Los Angeles Times, had attempted. Instead, the Times set out to look at how class affects individuals. Not individuals in the aggregate, but rather a few very specific individuals: “a lawyer who rose out of an impoverished Kentucky hollow; an unemployed metal worker in Spokane, Wash., regretting his decision to skip college; a multimillionaire in Nantucket, Mass., musing over the cachet of his 200-foot yacht.” Each day brought a new topic — health, marriage, religion, education, immigration, corporate nomads — with a new set of stories to illustrate how conceptions of class color each of those topics.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using an individual’s story as a launching pad for further analysis. Bob Davis did a great job of that in the second piece (subscription required) in the Journal series, which opens with the story of one Benjamin Franklin Baggett, a Salt Lake City resident whose famous name was not enough to keep him out of serious debt and eventual bankruptcy. Davis quickly justifies his choice of Baggett as an exemplar of a greater national problem of debt: In the past 15 years, “income for the median American household has risen only 11 percent after adjusting for inflation, while median household spending has jumped at 30 percent.” The problem is particularly evident in Utah, where 28 of every 1,000 households filed for bankruptcy last year, “twice the national average and nearly triple Utah’s rate a decade earlier.” So that leaves Baggett as a great leading man, just one of a horde who are in serious debt in Utah … and ya gotta love that his name is Benjamin Franklin.

In the course of the Journal article, we meet other debt-ridden characters, each of whom presents a new tale of an irresponsible use of credit before Davis zooms out again to the bigger picture of debt dependence. The Times series takes a different approach, presenting moving mini-biographies of a few individuals’ battles with class without ever really explaining how or why it chose those particular individuals, or how their stories fit in with greater national trends. It’s a researcher’s nightmare, with no sign of a randomly-generated sample in sight, and therefore no real freedom for the authors or readers to draw any conclusions from these isolated incidents.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Times (and for that matter the Journal, as well) is wrestling with a tricky problem of perspective here: As Chris Lehmann points out in the Boston Phoenix, it’s not just anyone looking at class here, it’s the New York Times, a part of the nation’s ruling elite. Social class “is at the core of the Times’ [own] institutional identity,” notes Lehmann. After all, this is the newspaper that devotes any number of its own sections to recounting (and sometimes fawning over) the cultural habits of the rich, the educated, the well-occupied and the celebrated — from its Vows and Style sections on Sunday, to the Home and Dining sections during the week, to the recently added Thursday Styles section.

As Lehmann puts it, “Getting the New York Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing works.”

But months before the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were exploring class, the Los Angeles Times was drawing some conclusions of its own — and timely ones, at that. Starting its series in the heat of election fever, the Times drew connections between the isolated rags-to-riches or riches-to-rags tales, the academic research showing stagnated social mobility, and the political implications of the two.

The first article of its series, by Peter G. Gosselin, published on October 10, 2004, called attention to a deliberate move by government leaders that began 25 years ago to rely upon and even subsidize the free market, while cutting back on government regulation and reining in social programs. The resulting economic makeover, Gosselin says, “has come at a large and largely unnoticed price: a measurable increase in the risks that Americans must bear as they provide for their families, pay for their houses, save for their retirements and grab for the good life.” He questioned President Bush’s campaign assertions at the time that “people are better off relying on themselves, rather than on business or government, in case of trouble” by providing both anecdotal and analytical evidence to the contrary.

Instead of just presenting individual anecdotes and relying on pathos to keep people reading, leaving the question of “but how do we fix this?” dangling unsaid, the Los Angeles Times dared not only to ask, but also to answer. In the December 30 installment of its series — still more than four months before the Wall Street Journal and New York Times would jump on the bandwagon — Gosslein summed up the paper’s findings under the headline, “How Just a Handful of Setbacks Sent the Ryans Tumbling Out of Prosperity”:

Throughout this series, the Times has sought to make sense of an American paradox: why so many people report being less financially secure even as the nation, by many measures, has grown far more prosperous. The answer, the newspaper has found, lies in the shifting of economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families.

And it had earned the right to call those findings its own, by conducting an extensive analysis of something called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, funded by the National Science Foundation and run by the University of Michigan. That study “followed a nationally representative sample of 5,000 families and their offshoots for nearly 40 years.” With the help of a few experts, the Times “analyzed the annual fluctuations of panel-study families’ income in five-year increments from 1970 through 2000.”

Instead of relying solely on what this economist or that economist claims about social mobility over the past 30 years, Gosslein presents his own extensive analysis of that data, allowing him to draw more solid conclusions than can be found in either the New York Times series or the Wall Street Journal series.

The Los Angeles Times came roaring back again on May 15, the same day that the New York Times finally launched its own belated overview of class. With the first follow-up to its “New Deal” series since late 2004, the Times tied its mobility findings squarely to current events, including President Bush’s prescription for Social Security, and the recent court ruling which permits “United Airlines’ parent to dump its pensions on the federal government,” thereby leaving “workers and their families bearing big new risks.”

As the Times study showed, that latest decision was one of a piece with the ongoing trend of firms “retreating from the safety-net business” and “shifting responsibility to employees”:

An analysis by the Times last year of a long-term, government-financed database of 5,000 families found that most families experienced income swings of no more than 16 percent in the early 1970s. But those swings had nearly doubled by the start of this decade. The greater the swings, the greater are the chances that a family will be in the midst of a downdraft when a crisis such as a layoff or illness hits. Then it can be very difficult to bounce back.

It’s shrewd that the Los Angeles Times is still cashing in on its data analysis. After all, just as there’s no real reason for major newspapers to cover the ever-present issue of class today rather than yesterday, there’s also no reason why they should stop addressing it just because their packaged series has officially ended.

But in the absence of its own study to draw upon, the New York Times, whose series is still rolling , seems more intent on describing the experiences of people going through those income swings, without bringing in much evidence of overarching trends. It doesn’t totally fail to bolster the anecdotes with numbers and research; its Web site offers an impressive interactive feature on “how class works,” with graphics describing “components of class,” “how class breaks down,” “income mobility,” and “a nationwide poll.” But even those features are not without flaw. Despite the claim in the overview that the series “offers no nifty formulas for pigeonholing people,” we can’t help but note that the “components of class” section seems to exist for exactly that purpose, urging users to fill in their information for occupation, education, income and wealth to “see where you fit” on a computer-generated “prestige-o-meter.” Select that you’re a writer, for instance, and a red bar appears to illustrate your 66th percentile rating for occupational prestige; say you’re a surgeon, and it leaps to 99th. Seems like a nifty formula for pigeonholing people to us — and with a cute graphic to boot.

In fact, it’s hard to get much out of the graphics beyond playing the “where-do-I-fit-in” game. The site offers no summary of what the data means, and although it’s fun to watch the visuals change when you select a new occupational filter, it does make it hard to compare the statistics for two or more groups. What’s more, the explanation of where this data actually comes from is squished into a small, italicized paragraph in the corner. It’s almost as if the New York Times feared that any description of data collection or summary of findings would spoil the mysterious allure of its stylized graphics.

The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, provides detailed descriptions of its own research methods both within the text of the articles, and in a separate piece labeled “The Source of the Statistics and How They Were Analyzed.”

As for the Journal series, it lies somewhere in the middle, presenting the findings of many studies and surveys to accompany its descriptions of individuals caught in the various swirls, tides and eddies of social mobility, but still falling short in its explanation of the methods behind the statistics. Indeed, the Journal’s editorial page, which operates on a different plane (some might say a different planet) than the paper’s newsroom, printed an article by Alan Reynolds on May 18 that criticized the presentation of data by both the Journal and the New York Times. Reynolds’ point: what scholars are actually saying about class in America is not nearly so dramatic as the papers are making it out to be.

Reynolds objects in particular to the New York Times’ claim that “new research on mobility, the movement of families up and down the economic ladder, shows there is far less of it than economists once thought and less than most people believe.” As he reads the mobility findings, they are still weak, oppositional, and at best “suggestive” of trends, but by no means conclusive. He argues that the only reason that both the Times and the Journal have rushed these findings to the front page is that “income distribution is an agenda-driven ideological fixation that frequently impairs journalistic judgment.”

Reynolds’ critique is worth reading simply for the fact that it’s so cranky; let’s face it, it’s once in a blue moon that you’re going to find an editorial page grouchily announcing. “Don’t believe this newspapers’ reporters!” But Reynolds’ contention begs a point, perhaps because he did not include the Los Angeles Times in his jeremiad: If the issue is so agenda-driven, why is the Los Angeles paper the only one of the three that comes close to putting forward an actual agenda?

Meantime, with its “Class Matters” series still unfolding — and unfolding, and unfolding — there’s time for the New York Times to come to a killer conclusion that ties together its micro-analyses with some macro-level conclusions. Or some explanation of where those spicy interactive graphics came from, and what they mean. Or a nod to the policy implications of all of this. Or something that lifts the series from a touching but disjointed bunch of anecdotes to the level of a cohesive and significant treatment of a slippery but important subject.

Let’s hope, huh?

(Editor’s Note: An earlier posting of this review incorrectly stated that the New York Times series was to end on Sunday, June 5. The reference has been corrected.)

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.