Off the Cuff: March 2012

When historians look back at the last half-century in America, they’re going to shake their heads in wonder and ask: What were they thinking? How is it possible that our core values are disintegrating and no one notices? Whenever we look at issues of race, or public education, or the way we raise our children, we avoid the truth, with disastrous results: Our cities are falling apart; we haven’t developed an educated labor force; young people see no reason to grow up before they’re 30 or so. Wake up, America!

Now, a new book by scholar Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, challenges the assumption that most of us—Americans of every class—still embrace the values of hard work, religion and marriage, and that whether we’re rich or poor, we continue to believe in the American Dream. Those sweeping ideals, it turns out, are nothing but a myth.

In Coming Apart, Murray contrasts two fictional white American communities. One he names Fishtown, because it looks much like our working–class Philadelphia neighborhood; the other he calls Belmont, after an upper-middle-class community outside Boston. The two communities seem to have very little in common. Murray cites not only the obvious—a discrepancy in income—but also differences in pretty much every aspect of the way people in the two neighborhoods now live: in the type of food they eat, how old they are when (or if) they marry and have children, the TV they watch, in vacations they take, and so forth.

Murray’s truly surprising research into working-class life in this country undercuts our assumptions about communities like Fishtown. We accept as gospel that jobs there have dried up. But that’s not the root of the problem, Murray says. The real crux is that even before the 2008 recession, when there was plenty of work, many Fishtown men ages 30 to 49 were content not to work. By 2008, 12 percent of them—a little over one in eight—said they were “out of the labor force.” They were not even looking for a job. Well, one may surmise that must have been because the available jobs paid so little. Again, not true; Murray makes a valid case that wages for working-class jobs have basically held steady since 1960.

Yet the really crucial problem, Murray believes, is the way the supposedly God-fearing family men and women in Fishtown conduct their home lives. They neither fear God—almost two-thirds of Fishtowners have no religion—nor worry about having much of a family life. In 1960, almost everyone in both Fishtown and Belmont married. But in 2010, just 48 percent—fewer than half—of Fishtown adults were married, while in Belmont, 83 percent were. And that bodes badly for children: 44 percent of those in Fishtown were born to unwed mothers. No wonder Murray thinks we’re at a tipping point. “We have developed a new lower class,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.”

Charles Murray only speculates on the reasons for all of these problems. But he suggests that we should stop being afraid to criticize values and lifestyles that clearly hurt the working class. No one wants to appear judgmental, of course, but not holding everyone to standards that we know are important does a disservice to struggling Americans, and to the country’s future.