What’s behind America’s deepening class divide? Charles Murray — probably best known to readers as author of “The Bell Curve” in the 1990s — has a new book: “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” He argues that America is increasingly, dangerously divided between an out-of-touch upper class and a lower class that has abandoned the virtues of industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.

“Our nation is coming apart at the seams,” Murray writes. “Not ethnic seams, but seams of class.”

America once believed itself a classless society. Is it still? If not, where do we place the blame?

JOEL MATHIS

Here’s the good news: Somebody influential on the right — and Murray is beloved by many conservatives — is acknowledging the growing class divide in America. That is a breakthrough.

The bad news: Murray is big into victim blaming. If life among America’s working class has declined during the last 50 years, Murray says, it’s because its members have abandoned the habits of work and marriage that made the country great. He offers a lot of statistics to prove his point.

But a crucial piece is missing in Murray’s story.

It is most apparent when he describes the “real” Fishtown, a Philadelphia neighborhood several miles from where I live. Murray describes in great detail the rise of single motherhood and jobless men in the neighborhood.

But he never mentions Fishtown’s most-defining feature: It was once a center of manufacturing and industry — particularly the textile industry — and now it isn’t.

The factories are gone. Residents can no longer walk out of the neighborhood school and into a decent job that can sustain a family.

That’s precisely what happened across the country over the last 50 years: The manufacturing sector withered — jobs went overseas — and so did the wages of many Americans.

Read The Atlantic’s January cover story, “Making It In America,” and you’ll find many manufacturing jobs that mostly go to Americans with a costly college degree in science or math.

Simple hard work doesn’t get you as far as it used to. This matters.

Murray talks about the disintegration of the working class, but not the disintegration of the work. “I focus on what happened, not why,” Murray writes. Without the “why” though, he cannot and does not offer plausible solutions.

Instead, Murray urges the elites to preach more about virtue to the working class. Workers don’t need a lecture, though. They need real opportunity. That can’t be found in Murray’s book.

BEN BOYCHUK

Truth is, America’s ruling elite has much to answer for. No, not the “1 percent” that the Occupy Wall Street crowd so loves to demonize — although there is probably some overlap.

Rather, the elite in question is that small but influential group of opinion shapers, policymakers and taste arbiters who have steadily changed the American cultural landscape while successfully isolating themselves from their ill effects.

America is a more unequal society today culturally and economically.

The “new upper class” Murray describes in his book lives apart from the vast majority of Americans. Its members go to different schools, watch different movies, drive different cars and eat different food.

That wasn’t the case 50 years ago.

The crisis afflicting the bottom 30 percent of Americans, not just whites, stems from the dissolution of what Murray calls “the founding virtues.” Members of the new upper class may dismiss family, vocation, community and faith, but they don’t practice in private what they preach publicly.

Culture matters. It may even matter more than economic forces. More than 80 percent of upper-middle class whites are married. The divorce rate among them is low.

By contrast, fully one-third of working-class white men ages 30 to 49 have never been married. Many of them have withdrawn from the work force and descended into crime and dysfunction. The reasons have little to do with the lousy economy — this has been the trend for more than 40 years now.

If Murray may be criticized for anything in “Coming Apart,” it’s his refusal to offer any detailed policy prescriptions. In the end, all he can do is hope for a change of heart that would foster a “civic Great Awakening” among the new upper class.

Changing a culture is difficult and takes time. With the crisis facing our republic today, “hope for change” may not be good enough.

Ben Boychuk, associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal ([email protected]), represents a Red (conservative) viewpoint. Joel Mathis, a writer in Philadelphia ([email protected]), represents a Blue (liberal) point of view. Join the conversation at www.facebook.com/benandjoel.


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