Review of Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’

By Andrew Canfield, US Daily Review Contributor

Charles Murray’s previous literary efforts have not been exercises in shying away from controversy. Sugarcoating is one practice this American Enterprise Institute scholar does not engage in. In fact, Murray has a penchant for tackling aspects of society most Americans would, for the sake of inoffensiveness, be content to leave unexamined.

So readers of his newest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, knew no punches would be pulled when Murray took a look at the tangible and growing lifestyle gaps between upper and working class American whites. This most recent work is Mr. Murray’s examination of how two different Americas have come to be formed in the white community over the preceding half century.

Instead of focusing on the 99/1 divide, Murray opts to look at the “upper middle/new upper class” vs. the plight of “working class Americans.” He uses the assassination of President Kennedy as a line of demarcation in American history, equating that event with the loss of a generation’s innocence.  Murray decides this day in November of 1963 marked the beginning of a schism along class lines in the lives of white Americans, albeit one which has taken decades to fully open up. Vast class differences on topics such as finances, marriage, education, and faith are examined in this graph and statistic heavy book.

To assist his readers in following the book’s analysis, Murray contrasts the prospects of two fictional communities created for purposes of this book: Fishtown, a fictional city comprised entirely of white working class Americans, and Belmont, a town of upper class and college educated whites. They are grouped this way so Murray can more easily cite accelerating differences between the wellbeing of the two. Coming Apart focuses only on the plight of the 30 to 49 year old demographic, pinpointing key changes in this age group over the preceding fifty years.

Murray provides insight into the emergence of vast wealth gaps between upper/upper middle class and working class whites. “From 1960 through the early 1990s, the top centile of American families had incomes that began at around $200,000. Then in 1994-95, the bottom end of the top centile careened up from $233,000 to $433,000. There is no doubt that a phenomenal growth in top incomes occurred sometime during that period.”

Marriage and Children  Murray postulates the development of a “college sorting machine” has created a distinct, segregated upper class as the number of Americans in higher education increases. Education homogamy has expanded with a bigger pool of college graduates, making it easier for college graduates to seek out a spouse with similar education attainment. This leaves individuals with no college degrees to intermarry with others of similar lower educational backgrounds. On an Ivy League and elite scale, Murray says, “The college sorting machine brings the highest-IQ young women and young men together in the most prestigious schools. Graduate school adds another layer of sorting.”

Examining trends in these “assortive marriages” reveals educational homogamy has in fact been increasing. He concludes that “In the days when Harvard men and Wellesley women were more likely to be rich than especially smart, this meant money was more likely to marry money. In an era when they are both almost certainly in the centiles of IQ distribution, it means that very smart is more likely to marry very smart.” In short, self-selecting a mate of similar educational attainment and cognitive ability has become a simpler task than ever before.

Murray also notes that marriage rates are much higher in Belmont (the upper/upper middle class enclave) as opposed to Fishtown (the fictional working class town.) The changes in marital status among the two classes are striking. In 1960, 84% of Fishtown residents were married; in 2010 this number was down to 48%. Among Belmont residents the proportion of marrieds only dropped from 94% to 83%, meaning that a 35 point marriage gap now exists between upper class and working class whites. Today, nearly one in three Fishtown males has not married by age 50.

Murray also delves into the increase in nonmarital births, a number which has increase from 5% in 1963 to nearly 30% today among the entire white community. But this birth rate strikingly differs among classes; he estimates that nonmarital births are 6 to 8% of all Belmont births, while nonmarital births in Fishtown constitute close to 50% of all births. The number of Fishtown children living with both biological parents when the mother is age 40 dropped from 95% in 1963 to 30% in 2004; this number in Belmont is still around 90%. This striking gap in intact families reveals a tremendous difference between the two classes, one that was not present in 1963.

Education and the Labor Force Coming Apart states “As of March 2008, 12% of prime-age white males with no more than a high school diploma were not in the labor force compared to 3% of college graduates.” But the difference in labor force participation between these two groups was small in 1960 (it was 4.5% and 1% then, respectively.) This huge gap has opened up over the last half century, underscoring the economic challenges faced by white males who lack a college degree.

Faith In terms of religiosity, whites age 30-49 selecting “None” on the question of religion increased from 4% in 1972 to 21% in 2010, increasing precipitously in both Fishtown and Belmont. Murray also breaks his religious number down into “De facto seculars” or the “Religiously disengaged.” These take into account those who profess a religion but rarely or never attend services, arguably giving a truer picture of religious commitment.

The view of a wealthy, secular elite sneering toward the religiously devout masses does not hold up when these numbers are taken into account. In this scenario, a major religious gap has opened up between the working class and upper/upper middle class. In Belmont, the religiously disengaged increased from 27% in 1973 to 41% in 2010. In Fishtown, however, it went from 35% to 59% over the same period. This shows a remarkable increase in the number of working class whites who have all but thrown in the towel on religious faith; nearly six in ten can now be classified as de facto secular. Murray thinks the discrepancy between fact and fiction on the religiosity of working class whites can be explained by the increasing religious fundamentalism among members of the working class (from 34% of believers in the 1970s to 46% I the 2000s).

Murray provides a qualitative example of how an observer might delineate some basic differences between the classes. “In the mainstream school, the mothers of the children are mostly in their late twenties to mid-thirties. In the elite school, you may see no others at all who are in their twenties. With the men, the difference is even greater, with even more of them in their forties and some in their fifties. Or older. Another visible difference is weight. In the mainstream school, two-thirds of the parents are obese. At the private school, the parents are, on average, a lot thinner, and obesity is rare, because the new upper class pays a lot of attention to health and fitness.” Hypothetical anecdotes like this highlight growing differences between classes of white Americans which can be noticed by even the most aloof of observers.

One of his primary concerns is the slow death of a thriving civic culture in Fishtown. As a libertarian-leaning thinker, Murray emphasizes the importance of Americans acting together as neighbors and friends in voluntary relationships. Someone with Mr. Murray’s political orientation is especially concerned with the evidence that civil culture has been eroding among an entire class of Americans since the 1960s; the argument of coercive government action is greatly enhanced by the absence of such societal bonds.

Civic disengagement has held steady in Belmont while declining precipitously in Fishtown, as 75% of Fishtown residents were socially disengaged in the mid-2000s. 82% were civically disengaged. (Estimates for Belmont are nowhere near this elevated number.)

Such decline in social capital eats away at the underpinnings of a functioning democracy, and Murray makes his fears that we are nearing the point of no return known. The evidence he presents that a major divergence has occurred between upper/upper middle class and working class whites cannot be ignored. Its implications for the future are tremendous.

Coming Apart makes a compelling case that an alarming portion of the white community has been left behind over the preceding decades. Education and lifestyle choices are creating an increasing divide among white Americans, causing distinct class differences to emerge which were not present several decades back.

Murray uses this forum to make no cheap political points and does not prescribe any specific government intervention. He remains content to lay out the facts in an evenhanded manner, leaving it up to the reader to conclude how declines in the prospects of working class whites are best addressed. After reading Coming Apart, however, one cannot plausibly deny the existence of these disconcerting circumstances.

Andrew Canfield is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington and a resident of Bossier City, Louisiana. He is the community relations director at a property management company and enjoys writing for the local newspaper and fitness web sites in his spare time.

Andrew is a fan of outdoor activities, and loves running and cycling in his spare time. His favorite economic author is F.A. Hayek, and he considers himself a libertarian Republican.

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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