Despite almost 50 years of Great Society programs designed to alleviate poverty, America’s lower class is growing. Why some Americans are poor and increasingly dependent on government for basic needs is one of the most important public discussions we refuse to have. Though much is made of the welfare apparatus that treats the symptoms of the disease, the actual causes of economic despair are ignored.
One reason for this may be a fear that explanations of poverty are, at their core, racially unique and no one wants to walk that road. This is why social scientist Charles Murray’s latest book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," is an important beginning to the public conversation we need to have. By concentrating on whites, Murray shows that contemporary American society divides most sharply by class, not race, and the lines are becoming more distinct. Most importantly, he goes beyond simplistic explanations of why economic disparity is growing and explores the cultural underpinnings of our growing divide. This is especially applicable to a state like Vermont, where racial diversity is virtually absent but class differences can be stark.
Central to this discussion is the recognition that there is a widening gap between the working class and the upper middle class, both of which are growing. These differences are not just economic -- they encompass everything from television viewing, eating habits and hobbies to educational choices and civic involvement. Murray examines two mostly white neighborhoods that encapsulate these economic subcultures -- Fishtown, an urban neighborhood, and Belmont, a wealthy suburb. The trends he observes in both areas demonstrate the growing cultural disparity which may also explain, at least in part, their economic divergence.
To summarize Murray’s 400-page book here is impossible, but his discussion of America’s founding virtues provides a window into his theories on the changing American culture. Through the writings of our founding leaders and later discourses on the American project by such keen observers as Alexis de Tocqueville and Francis Grund, Murray identifies four traits and institutions that were core to our success as a society and a nation: Industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion.
Murray traces the disintegration of these values to the 1960s; he actually establishes the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a pivotal point in the creation of modern American society. Though both Fishtown and Belmont experienced cultural upheaval related to the four virtues during the 1960s, marriage and religion in particular, Belmont pulled up and righted itself. After a period of decreased marriage and increased divorce and cohabitation, Belmont has now returned to nearly that same levels of marriage stability and religious practice that it had 50 years ago. Belmont’s population also demonstrates high rates of industriousness, especially among males in their peak earning years, and a high degree of trust and security.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for Fishtown. The decline in values, which had been practiced fairly uniformly across all classes in the early 1960s, continued in Fishtown. For instance, today only 48 percent of prime-age whites in Fishtown are married, compared to 84 percent in Belmont, and more than a third of Fishtown men have never been married. Since birthrates have not significantly declined, this can only indicate a similar increase in children born to unmarried women. In fact, Murray estimates 43-48 percent of Fishtown births are to unmarried women. As uncomfortable as it makes the politically correct among us, socials scientists have demonstrated repeatedly that children raised in single-parent homes are negatively affected by the situation. While this is true regardless of socio-economic status, it is also true that single mothers and their children comprise the poorest families.
The difference between Belmont and Fishtown in their observance and practice of the founding virtues is stark in all four categories. Industriousness in Fishtown has taken a nose dive, with 53 percent of households in 2010 having someone who worked at least 40 hours a week compared to 81 percent in 1960. Both property and violent crimes are committed today at far higher levels than they were in 1960. Regular church attendance and the benefits it brings of purpose, connection and community is almost non-existent in Fishtown. Meanwhile, Belmont continues to successfully practice the habits which have produced strong individuals, families and communities for centuries.
Here is where Murray sees a way out of the desperate situation in which Fishtown finds itself. Tolerance of all and any lifestyles is hurting those who should be able to look to the successful and find guidance. It is time, Murray says, for the Belmonts among us to start preaching what they practice.
How can this be accomplished? What would such an effort look like? That is for each community to decide but mentoring, outreach, and both practical and moral instruction would seem important components of any endeavor. Churches and civic organizations should be involved and policy makers need to start crafting programs and legislation that incentivize responsible behavior. Whatever we do, we need to get started -- we’re already running 50 years behind.
Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonter for Liberty. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.