Charles Murray, whose book Losing Ground redefined the debate about welfare and the underclass 30 years ago, has a new book, Coming Apart. The book is about the increasingly cultural divide among white Americans.
Coming Apart is controversial and has many critics, both on the left and on the right. But it has ignited a long-overdue discussion about the link between cultural decline and the American dream.
Murray shows clearly the growing cultural divide between white middle-to-upper-class communities and white working-class communities. In 1960, the two communities, despite differences in income and educational attainment, were statistically similar when it came to marriage, out-of-wedlock births, and religion. Around 1970, the gap widened, and by 2010 it was better described as a “chasm.”
Whereas 83 percent of those in upper-class communities are married, only 48 percent of those in working-class communities are. While 6 percent of births among upper-class communities are to unmarried mothers, 44 percent of those in working communities are. And most surprisingly of all, middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans are more likely to attend religious services on a regular basis than working-class Americans.
In Murray’s words, “these divergences” put upper and working-class communities “into different cultures.”
These “different cultures,” in turn, augur very different futures: the kind of social decay on display in working-class communities makes social mobility and prosperity far less likely and will only further aggravate the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.”
While Murray does a good job documenting the problem, he offers few solutions. That’s unfortunate because, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times points out, Coming Apart makes a “very convincing case ... for the power of so-called ‘traditional values’ to foster human flourishing.” This is true even in “economic landscapes that aren’t as favorable to less-educated workers” as in the heyday of industrial America, the decades following World War II.
As Douthat reminds us, the “challenges ... that have beset blue collar America over the last 30 years” haven’t changed some important cultural facts: marrying “the mother or father of your children,” taking “work when you can find it,” attending church, and “[striving] to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity” greatly increase your chances of escaping poverty and finding happiness.
Likewise, not doing these things only reinforces the downward spiral. None of this is a secret. The link between personal behavior and personal advancement is well-known.
Nor do we have to look far to glimpse what the future holds if the cultural trajectory holds: the white working-class communities Murray documents are at the same place inner-city African-American communities were when Murray was writing Losing Ground. What’s happened since should concern every American.
Today on my “Two-Minute Warning,” which I urge you to go and watch at ColsonCenter.org, I talk more about Murray’s book and the growing cultural divide in American life — and about how government policies since the 1960s have created an entitlement mentality among Americans. Please, go to ColsonCenter.org and watch the “Two-Minute Warning.”
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: February 22, 2012