Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

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Overview


Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is a social commentary written by Charles Murray. In this book, Murray details his views on the demise of American society and the problems associated with the segregation of America based on nothing other than class. Murray is particularly worried about the creation of a subculture of America which he calls a new lower class, previously made up of people from the working class. The people in this new lower class have lost touch with the four "founding virtues" of America: honesty, marriage, industriousness, and religiosity. At the opposite end of the class spectrum lay the new upper class, polar opposite in characteristics from the new lower class. The problem is not just the creation of this new upper class, but the separation of this class from the rest of society, and the unwillingness to press upon the other classes values held by members of this class.


Murray worries that this segregation of classes and the lost values of the new lower class will lead America down a path of destruction, and will land us with other once great fallen nations. A conservative and libertarian, Murray argues that the social welfare programs provided by the government are part of what is leading Americans to abandon the values that were once so important. He finds great fault with the welfare state of Europe, and he sees America going in the same direction. On the contrary, he argues for little to no government intervention in the form of welfare programs, but offers little evidence to back up this assertion.


It is found that the top and bottom of white America live in very different cultures, and the difference between the two cultures has been continuing to increase over time. Murray makes an argument in which he believes that the powerful upper class are living in enclaves and are surrounded by their own kind. While on the contrary he believes the lower class are suffering from erosion that consists of family and community life that strikes at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. With that being said, the divergence between the two groups puts the success of the American future at risk. [1]


Much of what is said here about the state of America and the growing concern of socioeconomic class relation is indeed a relative problem. For years society has documented the struggle of the lower-class and ventured to at least attempt to get to the bottom of what has and continues to cause poverty in and around the lower-class.

New Upper Class


The new upper class includes people who are highly educated, wealthy, hold positions of influence in American culture, and share several lifestyle choices that separate them from the rest of “main-stream” America. The new upper class has separated itself from other classes through choices pertaining to raising children, health and wellness, media consumption, and work-life balance. Specifically, new upper class parents are heavily involved in their children’s education and extracurricular activities; these parents prepare their children for college starting the day they are conceived. Members of the new upper class are generally healthy; they take measures to stay physically active and choose to eat foods that are sustainable and generally detest fast food. Being unhealthy in the upper class is looked down upon by other members of this class. People in the new upper class do not consume media like television and movies as heavily as do those in main-stream America; however, they are likely to read some form of newspaper more readily and if the radio is on in their car it is likely to be political talk. The work environment for those in the new upper class is considerably more flexible than for average American workers, and the companies who employ these people are concerned about their health, happiness, and well being.


This group has also developed a level of homogeneity through associating primarily with others who hold similar levels of education, wealth, and opinions regarding the above choices. Besides separating themselves through cultural choices, this subculture has also physically separated itself by clustering in “super-zip,” those zip codes which contain incomes in the 95th to 99th percentiles (Murray 2012, 92). Surrounding these super-zips are areas that are only marginally less wealthy than the super-zips, which essentially insulates the new upper class from those who are not in their ranks. This insulation markedly reduces the ability of these people to be empathetic to those outside of their immediate “bubble.”

New Lower Class


The “new lower class” is a subdivision of the former working class in America. This group could be described in terms of polar opposites from the description of the new upper class noted above. Children in new lower class families are more likely to be raised by a single mother or by a mother and male figure who is not the child’s biological father. These heads of household are likely to be much less involved in the children’s activities and are less likely to discipline a child when a neighbor or teacher describes poor behavior that would normally be the basis for punishment. Those in the new lower class are more likely to embody the new norm of American poor health, and namely the overweight and obesity epidemic. This is partly out of necessity; healthy food does not come cheap in America, so the alternative for families is fast food. These people are also more likely to be parked in front of the television for several hours a day and go to main-stream movies and listen to popular music on the radio instead of intellectual talk radio. Whereas the work environment for the upper class has become for flexible and comfortable, the work environment for the lower class has remained highly structured and supervised with little choice for when and where the work will be done.

"Belmont", "Fishtown", & "the Founding Virtues"

The basis of Murray’s arguments center around several assumptions he makes regarding the behaviors of members of both groups. He uses two fictional places loosely based on American towns to showcase his assumptions and findings. These two places are Belmont, symbolic of the new upper class and Fishtown, more akin to the new lower class. In his assumptions he focuses primarily on “adults in the prime of life,” adults no younger than 30 or older than 49 years old (Murray 2012, 1457) For those in Belmont, Murray considers only those who are in a marriage where they or their spouse have a bachelors degree or higher and are employed as managers, attorneys, engineers, architects, college faculty, or content-production members of the media. He only includes unmarried persons in Belmont if they have at least a bachelor’s degree and are in of the specified professions. Those who are considered in Murray’s fictional Fishtown have no more than a high school diploma and work in blue-collar, service, or low-level white collar jobs (Murray 2012, 145). These basic assumptions made by Murray frame the arguments laid out in Coming Apart, and should be considered when his “evidence” is presented.


The majority of Murray’s analysis is based around what he calls the “founding virtues,” values that were identified as crucial to the founding fathers of America. These include marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity (Murray 2012, 127). Between 1960 and 2010 the percentage of adults who were married in Fishtown decreased from 84% to 48% while in Belmont this figured changed from 94% to 83% (Murray 2012, 154). The two towns are now separated in terms of percentage of married adults by 35 percentage points, up from 10 in 1960. In terms of industriousness, one of the best measures of this figure is how many adult men are not in the labor force; this would mean they are not currently working or looking for work. In 1960 1% of men from Belmont and 4% from Fishtown were not participating in the labor force, which rose to 3% and 12% respectively in 2010 (Murray 2012, 173). As for honesty, Murray uses crime as an indicator for this virtue, and shows that while just over 80% of white prisoners came from Fishtown, less than 2% came from Belmont, figures which remained steady over the 50 year period (Murray 2012, 190). The final indicator, religiosity, showed the least divergence between the two groups. The percentage of people who regularly attended worship services dropped by about 15% for both groups, landing Belmont still higher at roughly 50% and Fishtown landing at 40% (Murray 2012, 205).


Outlook


Simply put, Murray describes the main negative effect as the “Selective Collapse of American Community” and a corresponding decrease in overall happiness experienced by citizens (Murray 2012, 236). The collapse of community is “selective” because it has been seen primarily in communities like the fictional Fishtown, whereas towns like Belmont have remained fairly stable over the last 50 years in terms of community involvement and social capital. In places like Fishtown, there has been an extreme increase in social disengagement and civic disengagement, meaning people are less likely to be involved in sports clubs and nationality organizations as well as service groups and local political organizations. This disengagement leads to the breakdown of community bonds and it has lead to a general feeling by those in lower class communities that people are generally not trustworthy, fair, or helpful; all of which would make it extremely difficult for a community to be built.


Murray, a self described libertarian, broadly outlines what he sees as the direction the new upper class should take America in, and he more strongly states exactly which direction America should not go in. The path America should not take is that of the “European Model,” or, that of the advanced welfare state as seen in European countries. Murray sees this as a failure of the European governments because by giving citizens things that they would have otherwise worked for and earned themselves, the governments are taking away incentives to act in ways that would bolster communities, and “enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives” (Murray 2012, 282). For example, a person is theoretically less likely to work a low paying job if he knows that he will receive a welfare payment equivalent to the low salary for not working at all; this payment takes away the small satisfaction of earning a paycheck.


Murray argues that no welfare system is theoretically needed in America, as long as we get back to our values and a focus on the founding virtues. To achieve this, Murray challenges the new upper class to get back to “preaching what they practice,” become active in politics as a class by doing more than donating to candidates, and set overall expectations for everyone else. He states what while the new upper class largely adheres to the founding virtues; they no longer insist that everyone else in America should do so as well. In summary, he calls for a “civic Great Awakening” among the new upper class where they will become more in tune with the rest of America.

Criticisms


Reaction to Murray’s work has been largely negative, but mixed as far as the degree of detestation for this book. In his review of Coming Apart for the New York Times, Nicholas Confessore challenges Murray’s use of graphs and charts, stating that there is some speculation that he “massaged” his findings to support his assertions [2]. Also, Confessore states that Murray’s sociology heavily depends on his own, “highly idiosyncratic” field work. He also challenges Murray’s overarching assertion that the economy did not have an impact on the new lower-class reduction in hours worked and civic values because the economy was growing during the period in question. Confessore argues that while the economy was growing a whole, not everyone shared equally in the growth. He asserts that while the new upper class was becoming ever wealthier, the median family income in the US between 1998 and 2008 decreased from $61,000 to $60,500 [3].


In an interview with CNN’s Ali Velshi, David Frum outlines his main arguments against Murray’s assertions in Coming Apart. Frum, a vocal and strong critic of Murray, states that it was careless for Murray to lay explain the changes in America as purely a “cultural change” while ignoring economic circumstances altogether. He states that saying that the reason is a cultural change is a fancy way of avoiding answering the question of what caused the changes in American society [4]. Of course there was some kind of cultural change, but what caused the cultural shift? Why have attitudes towards work and marriage changed? These questions go unanswered by Murray. In his five part critique of Coming Apart, Frum goes into greater detail about what he finds wrong with Murray’s claims. In part two he asserts that Murray’s description of the American elite class is inconsistent and is incredibly biased [5].


In part 3 of his critique, Frum raises hypothetical arguments that the founders of America would have against Murray’s book. He states that though he obviously doesn’t know what the founders would have thought about America, neither does Murray. He also rejects the notion that the majority of those in the top 5% are liberals; according to Frum, Murray focuses on these people mainly because he detests them [6]. In part 4 of his critique, Frum rejects Murray’s broad “solutions” for America’s problems and argues that he had no actual evidence for many of his arguments including his argument for the reduction of government aid [7]. Finally, in part 5 of his critique, Frum argues that Murray is fundamentally wrong in asserting that America has never been in a place of great inequality and in the midst of social changes. He once again attacks the overly general solutions proposed by Murray, his statistics, and even the fact that Murray only focused on white America in his book [8] .


Roger Lowenstein, in his book review for Bloomberg Business Week, outlines far less forceful criticisms of Murray’s work. He finds few major faults with the first two sections of the book that describe the new upper class and the decline in values of the new lower class. His main frustrations come in the last part, where Murray explains the causes and solutions for the cultural divide [9]. According to Lowenstein, “this section brims with political resentments; the carefully researched facts give way to bitter generalizations.” He attacks the argument that Americans are more “coddled” and protected today as we arguably move towards a European welfare state.


References


  1. Murray, C. (2012). Society and Culture. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Retrieved April 13, 2012 from http://www.aei.org/article/coming-apart-the-state-of-white-america-1960-2010/
  2. Confessore, Nicholas. Sunday Book Review: Tramps Like Them. February 10, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/books/review/charles-murray-examines-the-white-working-class-in-coming-apart.html?pagewanted=all (accessed April 3, 2012)
  3. Confessore, Nicholas. Sunday Book Review: Tramps Like Them. February 10, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/books/review/charles-murray-examines-the-white-working-class-in-coming-apart.html?pagewanted=all (accessed April 3, 2012)
  4. Frum, David, interview by Ali Velshi. Decline in Values to Blame for Inequality? (February 27, 2012)
  5. Frum, David. Charles Murray's Imaginary Elite. February 7, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/07/charles-murray-book-review-part-2.html (accessed April 3, 2012)
  6. Frum, David. What the Founders Would Tell Charles Murray. February 7, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/07/charles-murray-book-review-part-3.html (accessed April 3, 2012)
  7. Frum, David. Social Science Minus the Science. February 7, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/07/charles-murray-book-review-part-4.html (accessed April 4, 2012)
  8. Frum, Daivd. Now All Americans are Losing Ground. February 8, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/08/charles-murray-book-review-part-5.html (accessed April 3, 2012)
  9. Lowenstein, Roger. Book Review: Coming Apart by Charles Murray. January 19, 2012. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/book-review-coming-apart-by-charles-murray-01192012.html (accessed April 3, 2012)
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