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Sawhill, among others, pointed out years ago that marriage and family structure have surpassed race in determining socioeconomic standing. (If you are an unborn baby choosing parents and you want to avoid poverty, you should pick married black parents over unmarried white ones.) Robert Reich (who back in 1991 coined the phrase “secession of the successful”) and the journalist Bill Bishop (author of the book The Big Sort) have explored cultural and economic segregation. Journalists David Brooks and Don Peck, among others, have explored the emergence of a distinctive and separate elite culture. Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist, has sounded the alarm about the decline of marriage in the working class. Murray himself first warned of “the coming white underclass” in The Wall Street Journal as long ago as 1993.
Nonetheless (and despite acknowledging many of his predecessors), Murray is getting a ton of press for his book. Well, good for him! By splitting class off from race, by pulling many pieces together into a coherent story, and by salting his book with telling examples from popular culture and everyday life, he has used his valedictory, if such it be, to find a way to tell a story that race-obsessed liberals and class-denying conservatives need to hear and confront. America is bifurcating.
The book is not without peculiarities. This is Charles Murray, after all. It seems odd, if not churlish, for Murray to blame working-class men’s withdrawal from the work force on welfare and indolence rather than on declining wages. “If their job prospects are objectively worse,” says Burtless, “I don’t know why we would be surprised if they work less.” My own guess is that values, economics, welfare, and wages are all in play, and that Murray’s readiness to blame the government and working-class mores says more about his predispositions than it does about the world.
The same goes for his disdain for Europe, which he sees as a kind of social-welfare antipode to America. In my view (shaped by living and working in Britain), the overriding fact about Europe’s social systems and norms is their similarity to America’s, not their differentness; Europhobia, in my view, is one of modern conservatism’s more curious and unattractive tics. Also a stretch is Murray’s notion that the only hope of turning around the behavior of the lower class is for elites to regain their self-confidence and “preach what they practice.” Good luck with that. In Tocquevillean America, it is mass opinion, not elite finger wagging, that primarily legitimizes cultural mores.
Helpfully, however, Murray saves his hobbyhorses for the final chapter, where readers can easily ignore them. Also to his credit, he is half-hearted about his remedies, because he knows they probably won’t work. Here he commits an act of integrity. Book editors always insist on a last chapter that lists things “we” (whoever that is) can do to solve the problem. Coming Apart does not include that chapter. No bromides about cutting the capital gains tax rate or revitalizing manufacturing.
The vectors driving American class bifurcation are fundamental: the decline in demand for low-skilled labor, the rise in earning power and independence of women, the desire of people with talent and education to marry each other and socialize together. None of these things is likely to change, or even necessarily should change. Unless we abolish farm machinery and factory automation, good low-skilled jobs are never coming back. Women are not going to renounce their economic and social freedom. Yale-educated moms are not often going to marry high-school-educated dads.
Notice, too, how the vectors intersect with and reinforce each other. Low earnings and poor job prospects make men less marriageable, so women enter the work force without marrying, making work more optional for men and men more optional for women. More kids are thus born to single moms, who tend to wind up poor, disadvantaging the kids. Meanwhile, the very fact of not marrying reduces men’s earnings, so the less men marry the less they earn, and the less they earn the less they marry. As all the little gears and wheels turn, lower-class neighborhoods grow more disorganized and isolated. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Murray is not very persuasive in arguing that the emergence of a culturally distinctive new upper class is in itself a danger to the country’s social cohesion, although the point bears thinking about. Much more worrisome is the story at the bottom, which suggests a future in which America will have a harder and harder time making a happy, productive place for the working-class people who only a few decades ago were the country’s economic and moral backbone.
Yet there is a possible bright side that Murray overlooks. In focusing on the college-educated, managerial, and technocratic top 20 percent and the blue-collar, high-school-educated bottom 30 percent, Coming Apart omits something like half the population: the white-collar middle. These folks include, for example, owners of small businesses, teachers, police officers, insurance agents, salesmen, social workers, technicians, real estate brokers, nurses, and managers without college degrees. “I omit them not because they are unimportant,” Murray says, “but because…on every indicator this group was in the middle,” and excluding them makes the story “easier to follow.”
Perhaps so, but it also leaves out the 50 percent or so of the population that may in fact be the country’s connective tissue and social glue: people who shop comfortably at both Walmart and Target, who follow football and like imported beer. Murray notes, in passing, that the pathologies of the blue-collar lower class are spreading to many individuals in the white-collar middle class, so there is some rot in the middle. This, again, is not news. But the white-collar middle is less isolated than the blue-collar bottom and has brighter prospects, offering an upward path for those beneath. As in politics, so with sociology: The middle is quieter and less exciting than the extremes, but in the end it generally matters more, and it deserves a textured examination that Murray has not provided here.
But never mind. Murray, in Coming Apart, has done more than enough for one book. He has shown us how to think meaningfully and talk manageably about class in America. In doing so, he has performed a feat worthy of James Q. Wilson. Pray for more works of social science as unoriginal as this one.
Jonathan Rauch is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and author, most recently, of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (Times Books).