Spring Reading: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

Political scientist Charles Murray has written a lot of books. All of them have been provocative. Some have been downright nasty. His political leanings are libertarian and he has presented major challenges to liberal understandings of social welfare policy. In fact, one could argue his work provided the intellectual underpinnings of national welfare “reform” in the 1990s.

Normally I wouldn’t have paid a lot of attention to Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 but as has been true of his work in the past he does call attention to an issue that needs attention, even though his analysis misses the mark.

Murray is convinced that a new American upper class is emerging that is different from what we have known in the past. It is made up of “the people who run the nation’s economic, political and cultural institutions.” This may sound like something originating from the Occupy movement (and it overlaps a bit) but for Murray the new Upper Class is not defined solely by money. Members of the new American elite go to school together and increasingly live together in “SuperZip” neighborhoods, mostly in metropolitan areas.

One could say there’s nothing really new in this. America has known “established” classes, almost from the beginning and those of us who follow the world of religion know that religion has played a big role in developing and maintaining social establishments. One of my all-time favorite books is William Hutchison’s Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960, which tracks that connection and its decline over time.

What is new, says Murray, is the stark division between the top one percent and the rest of America. To illustrate the division he introduces two fictional neighborhoods. One is Belmont, near Boston, which happens to be the home of Mitt Romney. The second is Fishtown, a white working-class neighborhood in northeastern Philadelphia. He summarizes the two communities:

     Belmont: Everybody has a bachelor’s or graduate degree and works in

     high-prestige professions or management, or is married to such a person.

     Fishtown: Nobody has more than a high school diploma. Everybody who

     has an occupation is in a blue-collar job, mid-or low-level service job, or

     a low-level white-collar job.

 Murray tracks changes in the two communities since the 1960s. Whatever the indicator -- marriage and family health, industriousness, unemployment, honesty and integrity, religious participation -- the divergence between the two communities is pronounced. Just one example: in Belmont, 7 percent of children are born to a single mom, in Fishtown the rate is 45 percent.

In short, Belmont thrives while Fishtown declines. And these two Americas are further apart from one another than ever before. Murray has constructed a short “quiz” to suggest the social distance between the upper class and the rest of America. Like most of the book, it will make most readers angry while also causing them to stop and think.

For Murray, the contrasting fates of divided white America lie not in economic inequality but “in losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society.” What is needed is a civic Great Awakening led by America’s upper class that will inspire the rest of America to follow its lead. “America’s new upper class,” he writes, “must once again fall in love with what makes America different.”

That’s an awfully quick summary, though I think it’s fair. I think Murray is way off base in his analysis.

But Murray has brought new attention to the reality of the class issue facing America today. “Belmont” and “Fishtown” may be fictional but they are also real.