Coming Apart: The State of White America

David Brooks of the NY Times writes, “I’ll be shocked if there is another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray writes, “For most of our nation’s history, whatever inequality in wealth between our richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world—for whites anyway.” But now, cultural inequality is becoming an insurmountable chasm.

Murray studies only Whites to avoid adding racial inequalities to the mix. He is just reporting what happened, not speculating why. He believes that starting with Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and other social changes that began in the mid to late 1960s (which brought about positive changes: civil rights, women’s movement; and negative changes: drug culture, increased crime, watered down school requirements) our society began to polarize culturally.

In 1960 the phrase “American Way of Life” referred to a culture of shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, plain spoken honesty, hard work and religion. Fifty years later that common culture has unraveled. We have a new upper class with advanced educations, often from elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. And we have a new lower class characterized not necessarily by poverty, but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.

Most striking are marriage statistics. In 1960, 94 percent of Upper Middle Class (UMC) adults were married. This declined somewhat to 83 percent in 2010. By contrast, for Working Class (WC) adults the decline is more dramatic, from 84 percent married in 1960 down to 48 percent in 2010. And amazingly, one-third of Working Class males  never have married.

Murray identifies two culturally and geographically isolated demographics. In Belmont, the fictional name Murray gives to the town where the top 20 percent live, divorce is low, the work ethic is strong, religious observance is high and out of wedlock births are rare.

While in Fishtown, where the bottom 30 percent live, these values have all collapsed, marriage rates are low and out of wedlock children living with single moms predominate.

Murray believes 1960s social policy fundamentally changed the signals and incentives facing low-income people and encouraged trends that soon became self-reinforcing. Some of Murray’s thinking helped lay the groundwork for President Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform Act which stiffened welfare requirements, and then to the surprise of many on the political left increased employment rates.

Also, I believe the women’s movement, which Murray deems a great societal positive that unleashed the talent and creativity of half the population, had the unintended consequence of downgrading working class males. In 1960 WC males, while not earning as much as UMC males, were still the family “breadwinners.” They were relied upon as the sole financial support of the family and took their financial and parenting responsibilities seriously. Fifty years later men may not even be the primary wage earner in two income families, and with the proliferation of single parent families (almost always with the mother) , the men are becoming superfluous. This mortal wound to the male psyche may be irreversible and may explain why WC men are becoming less educated less employable. Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute recently reported that nationwide 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled because applicants are unqualified.

It’s well known that children of single parent families often do not fare as well in early and later life as those from two parent families. Single moms know that too, but as Murray quotes from his many interviews with Working Class single moms, “I don’t want to marry a loser. Why take on another child?”

Many social scientists say the cause of the collapse of WC men is the economic turn-down and the effects of globalization. But the economy turned downward almost two decades after the cultural changes began, and the downturn only added to the existing trend.

At the end of the book Murray seems very pessimistic and presents no acceptable, practical solutions. Brooks recommends a universal National Service Program which would force members of the upper and lower tribes to live together, if only a year or so. The cross fertilization of values and practices and institutions that lead to achievement would be invaluable. The Belmont residents “need to preach what they practice.”

Question: Is the United States a nation of “haves and have nots,” or a nation of “haves and soon to haves”?

Charles Murray explains his correlation between a decline in marriage and social decay in White America.

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14 thoughts on “Coming Apart: The State of White America

  1. Ken

    It’s called the ” Politic’s of Intrusion “.

    History has very clearly given us all we need to confirm the path we are on!

    God Bless

  2. Marc Klecka

    LBJ’s Great Society destroyed the family unit as we knew it. The result of this plays out too often in today’s society … as recently as this week in Chardon OH with 3 HS students killed. If the breakdown of the family is a major contributor to our ills, the practical solution is clear.

  3. Dave Dibble

    The nation is rapidly becoming a nation of have & have-nots. In NY state something like 50% of the working population works for government, simply not sustainable. Add in those on public assistance, and it gets worse.

    Charlie Rangle (Dem NY City) proposed a mandatory national service that was not adopted. He wanted all to go through military basic training after high school then continue in the military if they liked it. Others could switch to domestic national service (inner city schools, hospitals, nursing homes, parks, etc) for the remainder of 3 years. I think the well-to-do and political classes squashed the entire plan to our countries detriment. In general too many of our citizens, specially the upper classes, are too self absorbed to take “for the general good” to heart.

  4. Matt Klecka

    Dave, re: national service. Why should you and the government tell me and others what we have to do? Taking away our individual liberties is your solution to the problem?

    When people talk about income disparities between the classes, I often turn to this Margaret Thatcher clip –

  5. john Otto

    If people would get away from the victim mentality and start working or even thinking about doing something rather than sitting around waiting for another government handout we could be great again. We need two things. Hungry people and less government ,

    Did you see the latest on shipping an item where you need to classify it. I am very computer literate and could not figure out what classification a used hydromat spindle fell under.

    Can anyone tell me why we are not exporting oil at this point?
    Why not spend a trillion dollars on converting all the US cars to run on natural gas?

    Why not develop the Braken oil fields, or get back to drill in the gulf. The DOE was established in the 70’s to rid our dependence on foreign oil. All I can say is ya’ll suck at your job.

    I remember when Carter was president – Obama is a repeat – one black one white – both no clue.

    We need a new Reagan and I’m afraid Romney and Santorum are not it. Newt could be but I don’t think the media will let that happen.


    There is not much one can say about our condition today, we have been too busy living it up. But there is a guy, born in 1919,one year before me, who away back in the 50s predicted our way of living and did it with finesse and humor. Max Shulman wrote about life. He saw the changes and he entertained us and in a way we said that’s just fiction. Murry is too serious. Read Shulman, laugh and when its over cry.

  7. Bill

    In a country without morals, there is no trust, only power and money. Women always worked, frequently as hard as men In the past they maintained the home and raised children. Now they are employed outside the home and home and children suffer. Government help for women only if there was no husband helped break the family. This policy was too stupid to have been accidental.
    There are no morals without religion, only political correctness and political correctness demands that Christianity be kept in the closet.
    Two years of compulsory National service would just be two years of indoctrination in Political Correctness. Ever heard of sensitivity training?

  8. James Thompson

    he has a point however there is more to the story and there is also another pretty good book The Winner- Take -All Society. No one in their right mind would take one of those 600,000 reported manufacturing jobs and find themselves out of work in later life According to those that hire there has never been enough workers. That is workers at the price they want to pay. There are people who want to work, manufacturing has become complex and the companies should pay up and help train. I do not even think that is enough, Job security if it has not, should become a more important part of job choice.

  9. Mike Richards

    To your question: Yes, we are “haves and have nots’. Imagine going to the Olympics and finding that all athletes are required to perform equally. And that all athletes get the same trophy. What rubbish!
    There is opportuity in the world for all to succeed. Let’s work hard and be proud of our accomplishments. And let’s brood over our failures and vow the we and our children will not repeat them.

  10. Bruce Renwick

    It’s harder to squeak out a living in America than I have ever seen in my time but there is still opportunity for those who seek it. Too many of our younger generation seem to think hard work shouldn’t have to be tolerated in this life. In my company the young people come and go and have all kind of excuses for their terrible work ethic. Should we call them the have nots or are they just the ones who don’t try to have? My grandfather worked hard on his farm, my father worked hard in the foundry and now I work hard at the shop. We never had a bundle, but have what we need.

  11. Mark Ellenberger

    Not only have we become a nation of haves and have-nots, include do and can’t do with that. You can see it in the endless delays on the Boeing 787, Nasa, oil exploration, and the farmed out civil engineering work. We have 3 crippled Generations to nurse-maid and it is unsustainable. The back end of the Baby-Boomers will pay the heaviest price. There is now a generation emerging from our schools that seem to have that fire in their bellies. They are going back to the right! With our help they could save us all!

  12. Tim Thomasma

    Great book review, Jerry – thanks. What to do about it is the thing. Maybe we need more compassion all the way round…care more for people, and that means everyone, not just our friends and family. Nothing against those who have greater ability and work harder keeping what we earn. But all of us, whether UMC or WC, need to have the determination to put in more than we take out, whether in our work or in our families or in our communities. Easier said than done. It doesn’t work if too many people on whatever side of things are content to just take.

  13. Joe Goerges

    I have been an employer for just over 30 years, it is getting harder than ever finding qualified help and harder yet finding young people that want to work. We try and use the temp to hire method but 95% of the time they are content with the fact that it’s a lot easier to collect unemployment than it is to work, somehow we need to instill in our young people it’s ethical to earn a living thru working hard/smart and to engage the American dream. It starts at home but education needs to make adjustments to our ever changing work climate.

  14. Trashcup

    Interestingly, the president of United Health Care made $100,000,000 last year. YES, that’s correct. The USA bought more Porsche’s last year than any other previous year. Tiffany’s had a record year last year. A restaurant in Chicago only takes PAID IN ADVANCE reservations for $150 meals and is sold out for a year going forward. Newspapers continually report multi BILLION dollar acquisitions of other companies all during the “recession” we’ve been in – they are all over the place in the news. Try getting a dinner reservation on a Saturday night – booked solid.

    Quit complaining and get off your butts and get to work.


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