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Is America coming apart?

Posted: February 10, 2012 4:43 p.m.
Updated: February 13, 2012 5:00 a.m.

This may sound a little odd, but I believe that I need to pay more attention to white people.

I told you it might sound odd. But I have paid a lot of attention as a journalist to black people, like the underclass that was left behind when the rising post-1960s black middle class moved on up like the theme song on TV's "The Jeffersons."

But I think I might have paid too little attention to the working class whites who were left behind by the rise of a new post-1960s over-class.

That thought crossed my mind as I read conservative scholar Charles Murray's important new book about our troubled times, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010."

Why "white" America? Despite that subtitle, Murray's book really is about all of us Americans. He limits his gaze to non-Hispanic whites, he says, only to avoid any illusion that the social stresses he uncovers can be remedied by attacking racism or restricting immigration.

It also steers the reader, I might add, to the stressed-out area of American life that most concerns Murray, a libertarian scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute: culture.

Perhaps you have noticed that conservatives love to talk about culture, especially when it helps them to avoid talking about reforms that might raise their taxes.

But don't get me wrong. I like culture. It motivates people to behave in ways that no government can, and it's often cheaper. Unfortunately, nobody has found a quick or easy way to change a culture. Murray argues that we need to try.

Our national civic culture is splitting apart, he finds, between the rich folks in "Belmont," the elite upper 20 percent of the nation's income earners, and the working-class bottom-30 percent that he calls "Fishtown."

The resulting culture gap, in his view, erodes family unity, undermines civic spirit and threatens the "American way of life" more than that other gap that's making headlines in this election-year, income inequality.

I have some disagreements Murray's conclusions, which I soon will elaborate, but his white-centric focus offers valuable surprises. For starters, it reveals how, as factory jobs disappeared in America's post-1960s economy, life in Fishtown has suffered ill effects similar to those that have devastated family life and the work ethic in many low-income black households.

Today's working class white Americans, Murray's research shows, are less committed to the workforce than their elders were. They get into more trouble with the law and their out-of-wedlock birth rates are soaring.

For example, among Fishtown's unmarried white women who have less than 12 years of schooling, nonmarital births have risen to more than 65.4 percent of total births by 2010.

I would add, that's just a few points below the 67 percent overall rate that has been reported among single black women in recent years.

Faring best were Belmont's college-educated women. Fewer than 6 percent of their births were out of wedlock as of 2008, almost the same as their 1970 rate.

In his exploration of white America, Murray reveals a values divide much like the achievement gap that has divided black Americas since the 1960s. Working-class Americans are falling further away from institutions like marriage, religion and voter participation. Upper class Belmont still values those virtues but keeps too much to itself.

Unfortunately, Murray offers only half of a reason for these problems and even less of a remedy. He casually downplays the devastating impact that the post-1960s collapse of America's industrial base has had on its Fishtowns -- like the one in which I grew up and others in which I have worked, back in the days when America still had factories.

Then he calls on upper-income Americans to reach out and reconnect to the underperforming lower class with values that can help them to succeed. Nice thought. But how exactly do we do that? Murray offers us a riveting pep talk but no plan.

Too bad. My best experience at connecting across class and culture came in my Army days. But I seriously doubt that the libertarian Murray wants to bring back the draft.

Neither do I. But when it comes to changing culture, it's hard to beat drill sergeants.


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