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With his new book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray has once again changed the terms of debate in America.
On Sunday, February 19, the New York Times ran a page-one lead story headlined “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage,” telling of the social cataclysm that is taking place right under our noses today:
Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.
Written by Jason DeParle and Sylvia Tavernise, the story noted that the change appears to be occurring from the bottom up, with the white working class now adopting the cultural norms—or lack thereof—long associated with the African-American population. Despite all the brouhaha about Murphy Brown, the fictional TV newscaster who elected for single motherhood, in reality upper-income, college-educated women remain largely immune to the contagion:
One group still largely resists the trend: college graduates, who overwhelmingly marry before having children. That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education.
The story noted that there are two alternative explanations to the phenomenon, liberal and conservative. Then it did something truly extraordinary for the Times. It suggested that conservatives might be at least partially right:
Liberal analysts argue that shrinking paychecks have thinned the ranks of marriageable men, while conservatives often say that the sexual revolution reduced the incentive to wed and that safety net programs discourage marriage.
Here in Lorain, a blue-collar town west of Cleveland where the decline of the married two-parent family has been especially steep, dozens of interviews with young parents suggest that both sides have a point.
Finally, down in the 17th paragraph, the reporters did something even more extraordinary for the Times. They admitted in one cursory sentence that American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray, identified only as “a longtime critic of non-marital births,” has recently written a book bringing this subject to public attention. (In fact, Murray’s book is the only reason the story was written.) They didn’t bother to interview Murray or elaborate on his research, but at least they acknowledged his existence. I don’t know about you, but to me this represents extraordinary progress.
The reason I say this is that 15 years ago, at the height of the 1996 welfare reform debate, I experienced one of the most bizarre conversations of my life with another Times reporter, named Josh Barbanel. Ever since the 1986 publication of Murray’s previous landmark, Losing Ground, conservatives had been arguing that the 60-year-old federal program called Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), originally envisioned as a small supplementary stipend for “widows and orphans” in the 1936 Social Security Act, had become a vast, culture-shifting subsidy for illegitimate births among African-Americans. Liberals, on the other hand, would have chewed on nails rather than admit that some well-meaning government program was having an adverse impact.
I had written several pieces for The American Spectator making the case against AFDC when one evening my phone rang and the person at the other end identified himself as Josh Barbanel. He said he had heard that I had written about welfare and that I probably thought differently than most people on the subject. He told me that I probably knew about the work of University of Chicago scholar William Julius Wilson, whose book, The Truly Disadvantaged, said that it was actually the disappearance of manufacturing jobs that had led to unwed motherhood. He said I probably disagreed but there were other studies supporting Wilson’s theory. And so it went, on and on, until after about five minutes he finally thanked me and said goodbye. He never once asked me a question. Nor did he offer me the opportunity to express an opinion. Had I been less polite, I probably would have said, “Are you going to interview me or are you just going to keep listening to yourself talk?” In any case, I’m sure he told both himself and his editors that he had “solicited opinion from all sides of the issue” in preparing his story.
The Times still hasn’t reached the point of doing anything as daring as interviewing Charles Murray. But at least they now mention him in their story.
THE CULTURAL EARTHQUAKE that Murray has brought to national attention in Coming Apart goes as follows: Whatever the causes, the social disintegration that once seemed to apply only to African Americans has now engulfed blue-collar, white working-class communities as well. Men are dropping out of the workforce, single motherhood has risen to nearly 50 percent, crime has skyrocketed, religious faith is declining, and the chances for upward mobility are rapidly diminishing. As Murray concludes: “The absolute level [of social cohesion] is so low that it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”
Murray identifies what he calls the “founding virtues”—marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity—that were once shared by all Americans and held us together in a common culture. That culture was still intact on November 21, 1963, the day before the Kennedy assassination that Murray chooses as his benchmark. In graph after graph drawn from the sociological literature, he shows how these four qualities have deteriorated—not among the college educated, who spend most of their time disparaging those virtues, but in blue—collar communities where people are rarely educated beyond high school. By way of illustration, he applies this data to two real places, Belmont, an upscale suburb of Boston dominated by college graduates, and Fishtown, a working-class neighborhood on the fringe of Philadelphia where the once strong ethic of marriage and family is now falling apart.
The disintegration of Fishtown over the last thirty years is a grim and depressing story. In one remarkable passage, Murray quotes social workers from the 1970s as they expressed their frustration about how Fishtown residents wouldn’t accept government programs:
“Kensingtonians [i.e., Fishtown residents] are psychologically unable to face up to their cultural and economic deprivation,” said one Philadelphia social services administrator. “Pride prevents them from taking advantage of social services. For them to accept these services would be to admit they’re not what they claim to be.” The director of Temple University’s Student Community Action Center lamented that “nobody knows how to work in the white community. Kensington doesn’t want us there. It refuses to admit it’s a poverty area.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
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