Charles Murray has made a splash with his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a book not as controversial as his previous blockbuster, 1994’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (produced with co-author Richard Herrnstein), but one interesting as a study of the social aspects of even rural life, such as in Salmon, Idaho, where I live. Some of the social pathologies of which Murray writes are also present in this small town in the Rockies that in many ways recalls Norman Rockwell’s America. Readers familiar with Murray’s work know that Coming Apart concerns America’s rising white underclass, thus avoiding the howls of racism from the left that greeted The Bell Curve. His first book, Losing Ground (1984), a study of the social ravages of welfare dependency, was also a political lightning rod.
The Lemhi River runs behind my apartment complex here, and on a recent Sunday afternoon I took a walk along the river. Coming back on a dirt road I saw from a distance a small child leaning over the railing of a second story terrace on one of the backside apartments. This is not good, I thought.
I crossed through the sagebrush and onto the back lawn and was soon standing beneath a little boy about a year old with towhead blond hair. The day was warm and he wore nothing but a diaper. He had a knobby, protruding belly button. He smiled down at me and chattered away in baby talk. Something seemed to amuse him as he gripped the railing with one tiny hand and pointed at nearby trees with the other. He had climbed onto a chair against the railing and had thus attained his precarious perch ten or twelve feet above me. The beaming little face looked down at me and continued its babbling.
“Hey, is anybody up there?” I called out, thinking to rouse the apartment’s occupants.
Nothing. I considered going around to the front to knock on the door, but wasn’t sure of the correct apartment number. On second thought I decided it wouldn’t be smart to leave the kid, who was still chattering away and swaying on the railing as if buffeted by a breeze. I thought that if he fell I would try to catch him in my arms.
“Is anybody up there?” Again, nothing.
In his book Murray posits that “America is coming apart at the seams. Not ethnic seams, but those of class.” A number of single mothers that live in my complex are typical of the people Murray is writing about. Many are jobless, as are the men in their lives or they’re absent. Murray writes: “Over the last half century marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes.” America’s well-educated elites who inhabit Murray’s liberal “SuperZips” paradoxically — despite their voting patterns and political views — practice traditional values, such as waiting to marry before having children. On the other side of that fault line are those I call “the pajama people,” after the currently popular mode of slovenly female dress noted in public places nowadays (the tattooed boyfriends retain the backward caps and drooping pants). These folks require significant amounts of public assistance to survive; from welfare checks to housing vouchers and food stamps. Murray: “When the government intervenes to help, it enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives.” To quote the author from a Time magazine interview, they live in “communities that require a welfare state.”
Current statistics tell us that 40 percent of children are now born out-of-wedlock. This does not bode well for the future civic and social health of America.
I focused on the kid, ready for him to tumble over the railing at any moment. We shared smiling eye contact that would have been pleasant in a different situation.
“Get off the chair,” I said, gently. “Get-off-the-chair.” He smiled and chattered and pointed at the trees again.
“Get-off-the-chair,” I repeated, slowly, as if somehow the power of suggestion would get through to him. And then again, more loudly: “Is anybody up there?”
A young woman suddenly came out of the kitchen door and onto the terrace. She looked nineteen or twenty and had long black hair. She snatched the child off the railing , and began to carry him back into the apartment, using his body to shield her face from me.
“I was trying to get your attention,” I said, sternly. “He could have fallen.”
Without a word she slammed the kitchen door behind her.
Who are these people? I thought. And what sort of future does my little anonymous friend have?