Root Cause of America’s Economic Decline: The Loss of the Protestant Work Ethic

The causes of America’s current economic malaise are many, and some are harder to address than others. The misguided fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies of our profligate and dysfunctional government head the list. Those can be turned around.

But a problem much more difficult to turn back is the rotting of our moral fabric—the decay of the Protestant work ethic—engendered by decades of New Deals, Great Societies and one attempt after another to Spread the Wealth Around. In its stead, we now have a culture of entitlement and dependency that threatens to accelerate our slide into permanent decline.

The alarming statistics can be seen in the accompanying graph. The first is the breadwinner index—the percent of the U.S. male population that is gainfully employed. Only a few points of this decline can be ascribed to the aging of the population. The graph for males 18 to 52 has much the same slope.

The second shows the number of out-of-wedlock births, the rate of which surpassed 40 percent of all births as of 2008. Add to this the new-normal 50 percent divorce rate and we have a country in which the majority of our children are being raised outside of the economic unit once known as the nuclear family.

The third shows per capita inflation-adjusted total government spending, including federal, state, and municipal government expenditures as best as they can be estimated. The extent to which the huge spike in government spending per person over the past 60 years is the cause or the effect of the first two trends is open to debate. But the relationship is clear. When traditional family breadwinners stop carrying their load, the burden falls upon the remaining workers, an increasing number of whom are single mothers struggling to make ends meet.

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