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With his new book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray has once again changed the terms of debate in America.
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There in a nutshell is the reason why white working-class neighborhoods were once so strong. But the government eventually won.
In the 1990s, it was fairly easy to trace how the welfare system had ruined family formation among African Americans. They had a long matriarchal tradition going back to Africa that allowed women to bear one or two “children of fortune” before they married. If nothing else, it proved fertility. Men participated in this sexual lottery and so no one had any real complaints. The woman would remain with her natal family, grandparents helping to take care of the infant, until a second or third child arrived. Then the grandparents would grow tired and kick the daughter out of the house. At that point the young woman would marry the father of her most recent child. It was not upper-middle-class family formation, but it worked.
With surgical precision, however, AFDC had intervened in this process. Instead of marrying the father of her second or third child, the young woman now had the option of marrying the state. This had ended family formation and created something never before known on planet earth—a human society where 75 percent of the offspring were being raised by single mothers.
The protocol in white working-class America was slightly different, but the result has been the same. In the old days, a couple would meet, hang out together, fall in love, start sleeping together, and perhaps even move in with each other but hold back on marriage—perhaps because the guy still wanted to hang with his buddies and they were giving him a hard time. At that point, the woman would “accidentally” become pregnant. Then the couple would marry. It was yet another kind of family formation, but it also worked. (The high percentage of Roman Catholicism probably helped.) In 1970 the percentage of children living with a single parent in Fishtown was less than 5 percent.
Now the process has been disrupted by abortion and the ubiquitousness of social programs. AFDC is gone but there is Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers, and the latest form of “welfare,” Social Security Disability Benefits, all of which can make a man’s paycheck look small. As Mario Cuomo once bragged, “If we take a 16-year-old single mother, get her on welfare, give her food stamps, get her in her own apartment and have her back in school taking classes, what’s the problem?” As a consequence, illegitimacy in Fishtown and other white working-class neighborhoods is already 25 percent and for mothers under 30 has reached 50 percent.
Yet you can’t blame just the unmarried mothers. Murray shows that blue-collar men have also changed drastically over the last few decades. Maybe it’s the sense that they aren’t entirely responsible for pregnancies—after all, the girlfriend can always get an abortion, can’t she?—or maybe it’s just the futility of competing with government programs, but the work ethic among Fishtown men has collapsed. Unemployment, which was below the national average until 1980, has climbed to 50 percent above. While 10 percent of working men put in less than 40 hours at their jobs in 1960, 20 percent do today. The number of prime-age men who have dropped out of the labor force altogether was only 3 percent in 1970, 14 percent in 2010. As Murray says, “[O]nce, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community…. [N]ow it doesn’t.”
What are all these men doing instead? Murray ransacks the social statistics to come up with the answer. The one non-working activity that has increased dramatically since 1985? Watching television. (If playing video games were a separate category, it would probably have risen even faster.) Meanwhile, women in Fishtown have reduced their work effort as well. The result is that, whereas in the 1960s 80 percent of the families in Fishtown had an adult working at least 40 hours a week, only 53 percent do today.
ALL THIS CONTRASTS DRAMATICALLY with what has happened among what Murray terms the “New Elite”—the college-educated people who have thrived in the Information Economy, collected numerous degrees, delayed having children until after marriage, and prepped their progeny for the best colleges, ensuring that success will be passed on to the next generation. Murray spends the first portion of the book limning these “Bourgeois Bohemians,” relying heavily on David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (2000). These people, he admits, have invented the computerized society, restored old houses, revitalized entire urban neighborhoods and patronized—even created—a whole genre of boutique consumer goods. Yet they have insulated themselves to the point where they know very little about the rest of America. (I always think of Katie Couric on the morning of John Kerry’s defeat, when she surveyed the results from Ohio and Indiana and whined, “Who are these voters?”)
Murray has devised a test whereby the cultural elite can measure their obliviousness to the rest of America: “Have you ever worked at a job that caused some part of your body to hurt at the end of the day?” “Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights?” “Have you ever purchased Avon products?” I found it very illuminating. I missed the Jimmie Johnson question (he who won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series five years in a row from 2006 to 2010) but still scored well from having lived in a small town and worked in a factory for a year after graduating from college. It made me realize why I have always resisted the call of my fellow graduates to join them in Liberal Land.
But as much as Murray would like to hold the elite responsible for what is happening in blue-collar America, he can never explain exactly why. His best indictment is “an unwillingness on the part of any significant portion of the new upper class to preach what they practice.” That is certainly true. No one who has been through the American educational system can feel comfortable telling high school graduates that they should work hard, get married, and practice the virtues of thrift and honesty—even though they adhere to those values themselves.
Where I think Murray might discover some leverage is in looking at the adopted religion of the educated class—environmentalism. Nothing expressed more completely the credo of the New Elite than the conviction that our very existence offends Mother Nature, that we are ruining the earth by using fossil fuels, and that Industrial America is something we should all be willing to leave behind. Where do people without a college education fit into this society? Competition from China and India has played a part in hollowing out America, but an equally important factor has been the near impossibility of building any kind of industrial facility in the United States anymore. No one has built an oil refinery in this country for thirty years. As late as 1980 there were two auto manufacturing plants within 25 miles of New York City, in Tarrytown, New York, and Mahwah, New Jersey. Today you’d have trouble opening a dry cleaning store inside that perimeter. Environmental regulations have made it a seven-to-ten-year ordeal to build any manufacturing plant in the U.S., and the burden of proof is always on the provider. Just look at the Keystone pipeline.
Coming Apart is a depressing book, of that there is no doubt. You come away feeling that the former America is passing before our eyes and soon we may be facing a chasm between a self-sustaining elite and a sullen, dysfunctional underclass that is reminiscent of Rome and other historical relics. Nor does Murray hesitate to make such comparisons.
Yet somehow I can’t help feeling there remains some deep reservoir of resilience in the American psyche that can resurrect these virtues—or some latter-day Ronald Reagan who can somehow become their champion. After all, hope and optimism are among the great virtues that have shaped the American character. At this point they may be all we have left.
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.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?