Coming Apart: The State of White America

A new book describes the white working class cut adrift from the institutions of marriage and the church.
Denyse O'Leary | Mar 27 2012 | comment  

The American working class isn’t clinging bitterly to guns and religion; it is letting go of everything that once distinguished it. That’s what American sociologist and recent wave-maker Charles Murray says in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, along with his essay “The New American Divide.” Despite the considerable evidence Murray offers to back up his thesis that the United States is dividing starkly into an upper and a lower class, it remains controversial (for obvious reasons).

Significantly, hostile reviews tend to nitpick, settle scores, or assign alternative sources of blame, focusing attention away from the big picture. Here is what Murray says the big picture looks like: Working class communities in the United States, far from clinging bitterly to guns and religion, are losing the Hollywood-mocked “religion and family values” culture far more decisively than middle class communities.

For example, marriage is becoming a lost art. In working class neighborhoods today, like Murray’s emblematic “Fishtown,” nonmarital births as of 2008 were around 43 to 48 per cent of all births. (In nearby middle class neighbourhoods like Murray’s example of “Belmont” they were around 6 to 8 percent.) When Belmonters offer opinions about the mass lone motherhood lifestyle, the fact is, they don’t know much about it from personal experience.

Also, many fewer Fishtown men the majority do not go to church:

In Fishtown the religiously disengaged became a majority amounting to 59%. (p. 204)

Strikingly, residents of nearby fashionable Belmont are more likely to go to church. Despite the widely publicized stereotype that the educated elite are materialist atheists, “Of the academics and scientists in the GSS sample, only 16 per cent said they had no religion” (p. 206). This is easy to explain if we keep in mind that most scientists are not the academic elite, they are just scientists, and most of them identify with a specific religious group.

Overall, a drop in church attendance changes a community like Fishtown. Murray observes,

People who don’t go to church can be just as morally upright as people who do, but as a group they do not generate the social capital that the churchgoing population generates—it’s not their “fault” that social capital deteriorates, but that doesn’t make the deterioration any less real. (p. 210)

Murray doesn’t pin the blame on any explicit change, but we can reasonably finger mass unemployment in industries that used to offer a living wage. His proposed solutions aren’t much good, really. He wishes rich people would display their wealth less ostentatiously and that middle class people would move into poor neighbourhoods.

But none of that would change anything for people who simply do not have steady work capable of supporting a family.

He is, however, to be commended for refusing to sugar-coat the decline in working class American life as some kind of bold new innovation. And anyone who has a plan for doing something about the problems should start with his statistical analysis.

Denyse O’Leary is a Toronto-based journalist, author, and blogger.

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