Charles Murray's 'Coming Apart' raises alarm over our civic culture
Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010" raises an alarm about four trends: marriage rates, children born outside of marriage, employment and religious faith.
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BURKITTSVILLE, Md. -- In Charles Murray's world, white Americans increasingly live in one of two places.
The first he calls Belmont, where affluent families have high rates of marriage, advanced education, a strong work ethic and fairly high church attendance. The other he calls Fishtown, and it is marked by many single-parent families, men dropping out of the workforce, lower education rates and declining religious faith.
Most of the families in Belmont -- which is also the name of the real-life home town of presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- make more than $100,000 a year. Most in Fishtown make less than $50,000 a year.
But it is not their economic disparity that he focuses on in his new book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." Instead, it is what he calls the disappearance of America's civic culture.
"The American project," he writes, "consists of the continuing effort ... to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.
"That culture was so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion. To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured. That culture is unraveling."
Specifically, Mr. Murray raises an alarm about four trends: marriage rates, children born outside of marriage, employment and religious faith. He examines those factors for prime working-age adults, ages 30 to 49.
In 1960, he says, marriage rates in that group were high for affluent and poorer whites: 94 percent in Belmont and 84 percent in Fishtown. Today, the rate has slipped somewhat among richer Americans but still stands at 83 percent. In Fishtown, though, only a minority of people -- 48 percent -- are married.
Despite major changes in the lives of women since that time, Mr. Murray said, only 6 percent of births among college-educated women occur outside marriage today, he said, but for women with a high school education or less, 44 percent of children are now born to women who aren't married.
In addition, he notes, the proportion of men no longer seeking work in Fishtown is now 12 percent -- four times higher than in 1968 -- and the proportion of residents who either have no stated religion or go to church only once a year has climbed to 60 percent, compared to about 40 percent among more affluent whites.
No one is arguing with Mr. Murray's statistics. But liberal critics say his description of the problem ignores the massive economic upheaval that has hit working-class communities in America.
Donna Cooper, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, lives in the real Fishtown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia.
"What Murray misses is that Fishtown illustrates the failure of our economy to fulfill the inextricably linked promises of prosperity and personal responsibility," she wrote in an essay. "In the 1960s, children in Fishtown lived in relatively stable homes, because their fathers could find jobs that paid enough to support their families. By the end of that decade, the acres of mills and factories around the neighborhood were shuttered. As a result, many of the children who grew up in the years of Murray's review were raised in homes with unemployed fathers" and "were attending public schools with graduation rates of about 50 percent."
In a recent interview at his home in rural Burkittsville, Md., Mr. Murray said he is familiar with the contention that most of the social changes he is citing can be traced to the loss of manufacturing jobs and outsourcing of labor to other countries.
But he doesn't buy it.
In 1960, he said, working-class Americans weren't a whole lot better off economically than today, and yet 8 out of 10 were married, "so that suggests to me that marriage is not impeded in a massive way by money. In 1960, there were working-class communities where the doors were left unlocked. Kids could play in the streets without being supervised."
The gap between then and now is more cultural than economic, he says, and it is time to reassert some of those vanishing values.
For instance, he thinks it would be good to "resuscitate the idea that a man with a low-paying menial job is still a respectable member of his community, whereas an adult male who does not have a job and isn't looking for one is a bum."
"What Fishtown needs is not more resources from the government," he says, "but validation for people who are still trying to do the right thing, so that what's in the air in the larger society for women who are getting married and then having children is, 'You've done the right thing,' and what's in the air for a guy holding onto the job at the loading dock is, 'Good for you.' "
His distress over the way affluent and poorer Americans have diverged is one reason he moved to picturesque Burkittsville more than 20 years ago, when his son and daughter from his second marriage were still young. "I didn't want my youngest two children to grow up surrounded by other kids just like them in a Washington suburb."
On the day of the interview, he divided his time between the kitchen of his home and the converted garage that he uses as a study.
The study was paid for by his best-known and most controversial book, "The Bell Curve." The 1994 book, written with the late Richard Herrnstein, made the case that IQ is mostly inherited and has a major impact on what social class people end up in. It also noted that African-Americans tended to have lower IQs.
That created a major uproar, and he acknowledges it is one reason why he confined his newest book to social problems among whites.
Toward the end of "Coming Apart," Mr. Murray acknowledges his libertarian bias and said no statistics are likely to change that.
"Data can bear on policy issues," he writes, "but many of our opinions about policy are grounded in premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data."
What that means to him is that more government support for poor Americans is not the answer. Instead, he believes the affluent residents of Belmont need to stop being so politically correct and stand up for the values by which they live their own lives.
"The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues," he writes, "but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and [it] preaches nonjudgmentalism instead."
Liberal commentators have skewered the idea that affluent Americans can successfully preach values to their lower-class counterparts, but Mr. Murray said his argument is more subtle.
"I didn't really say [affluent Americans should] get a bullhorn and go down to a working-class neighborhood and stand on a street corner.
"How about if we do something much simpler? In every article that journalists write about marriage and children, how about simply mentioning the well established fact that children fare far better in two-parent families on virtually every indicator -- from emotional development to the likelihood of being employed as adults -- than they do in divorced families, and children in divorced families do better than children of never-married women, and this remains true even after controlling for economics and race? Suppose that were simply part of the conversation whenever what's good for children is discussed?"
Lest people think he is simply beating up on single mothers, "I'm also perfectly willing to demonize the guys in all this. We look around and see a lot of single mothers doing the best they can and often doing a good job, and nobody wants to dump on them. I don't see why we shouldn't dump on the men."
Even if such messages were preached more strongly, though, Mr. Murray is not confident that they would reverse the trends in Fishtown that worry him.
"Let's say I had to bet 10 percent of my net worth, and at that point I can't be sentimental -- then reluctantly, I would have to vote for a pessimistic outcome."
"Because people like you and I are doing just fine. We are living a life that is just great. We hang out with people we like to hang out with, our talents are worth more on the marketplace than they've ever been and we can grumble about our taxes being too high, but it's a whole lot simpler to pay taxes to quiet your conscience than it is to engage with the rest of society.
"But even if that's where I would have to place my bet for the future," he says, "I would do so nervously, because this country has shown it is capable of wonderful changes in the culture in a fairly short time."
First Published March 5, 2012 12:00 am