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The Coming Cultural Disintegration

With his new book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray has once again changed the terms of debate in America.

By From the April 2012 issue

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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."

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.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.