Ethics at work: Social gaps vs economic gaps

Israeli opposition to 'social gaps' is a natural and worthy continuation of a very ancient Jewish ethos of equality.

February 12, 2012 23:40
2 minute read.
Social justice protest [file]

Social justice protest 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Israelis are very opposed to “social gaps.” This opposition is a natural and worthy continuation of a very ancient Jewish ethos of the equality of all, exemplified in many Biblical passages and stories emphasizing that even kings cannot trample the rights of citizens.

Narrowing social gaps is a declared policy goal in a number of areas and appears in the platforms of numerous Knesset parties.

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But when trying to quantify these social gaps it is common to rely instead on economic gaps, which in turn are measured by income gaps – which in Israel are quite large. But social and economic gaps are not the same thing, and the exact relationship between the two is the topic of a new book by conservative pundit Charles Murray that is roiling the blogosphere in the United States.

In Murray’s new and controversial book, Coming Apart, he documents that educated and uneducated white Americans have become further and further apart socially. Consider 30-49 year olds, and examine the gap between those with a college degree and those with no more than a high-school diploma.

In 1960, the rates of marriage, children born out of wedlock and labor-force participation were similar for these two groups. By 2010, yawing gaps developed in all three. The marriage rate for the educated declined moderately, from 94 percent to 83%; for the less educated, it plummeted from 84% to 48%. For the educated, the number of children born to unmarried parents rose from less than 1% to about 5%; for the less educated, the rate rose from 6% to 44% – almost half of the children born in this demographic to white parents.

For men in this age group, the number not in the labor force remained extremely low for the educated – 3% in both eras. But for the less educated, the number ballooned from 3% to 12%.

Let’s do a similar exercise for Israel. To match Murray’s focus on white Americans, we will limit the analysis to Jewish Israelis.

• 78% of the uneducated are married; for those with a college education, the rate is 79% – not much different.

• The rate of children born out of wedlock in Israel is so low that it is hard to make comparisons; a recent Central Bureau of Statistics publication called it “extremely low.” It follows that any gap among the communities must be tiny.

• The rate of workforce participation tracks the US experience more closely. But even here there is a difference: 3% of men this age with an academic degree were not in the workforce; for the uneducated it was 10%. This gap is certainly very large, but notice two things: The gap is somewhat smaller than in the US, and a meaningful fraction of those not in the workforce are kollel students, whose status in the community is distinctly not that of “dropouts.”

That certainly does not mean that economic gaps do not translate into social gaps and class stratification in Israel. But the effects are certainly less marked. In particular, the erosion of traditional family structure that so worries Murray does not seem to be a symptom of social divisions here.

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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).

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