The growing divide between the new white upper class and the new white lower class
A review of Coming Apart, by Charles Murray, Crown Forum, New York, 2012
By Mencken’s Ghost
July 5, 2012
Americans are concerned about the American dream evaporating, and, specifically, about the 99% vs. the 1%, about stagnant wages, about stagnant test scores, about insufficient spending on education (a canard), about too much spending by the federal government, about the growing income gap between rich and poor, and about other social and economic issues.
However, most don’t see the connection between these problems and two societal developments over the last 50 years: one, the decline in marriage and industriousness among America’s new white lower class; and two, the high marriage rates, high industriousness, and high cognitive abilities of the new white (and Asian) upper class.
The noted social scientist Charles Murray sees the connections and provides supporting statistics in his book, Coming Apart. As with his previous books, however, Murray’s findings have been largely ignored or pooh-poohed by America’s opinion makers.
No doubt, Murray is not surprised by the reaction. On page 158, he writes about the value of marriage to the well-being of children, and by extension, to the well-being of the overall economy and society. “Never-married women produce the worst outcomes,” Murray says, with respect to children’s aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, illness and injury, early mortality, emotional health, school problems, and dropping out. He goes on to say:
I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.
Murray’s contention is that beginning in 1962, social changes would begin to take hold that would result in a new upper class and new lower class among whites. . (He focuses on whites to keep the conversation from being sidetracked into issues of race and to avoid being labeled a racist by elites who don’t want the truth to be told about how separated they are culturally and physically from the rest of society and from the very people that they pretend to care about.)
Murray defines the new upper class as “the most successful 5 percent of adults ages 25 and older who are working in managerial positions, in the professions (medicine, the law, engineering and architecture, the sciences, and university faculty), and in content-production jobs in the media.”
The new upper class lives primarily in zip codes that Murray calls “SuperZips.” There are 882 of them across the nation, and they are predominately white or Asian (that pesky race that blows holes in the conventional wisdom that the American deck is stacked against minorities).
The SuperZips are slightly more liberal than conservative, but some of them have a high concentration of not only liberals but doctrinaire liberals. These areas of high concentration are called bubbles by Murray.
The Big Four bubbles are within or near New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. These Big Four are inhabited by elites whose beliefs, values and worldview have the biggest impact on the nation’s economy, politics and culture. (Note: Murray is libertarian and thus is liberal on some issues and conservative on others.)
Murray explains how this new white upper class differs from the new white lower class, which he estimates is now about 20% of the population.
One key difference is marriage. Today, only 48% of lower-class whites are married, versus 83% for upper-class whites. In 1962, the numbers were 84% for the lower class and 94% for the upper. In other words, not only were marriage rates higher for everyone in 1962, but the difference in marriage rates between lower- and upper-class whites was much smaller.
In 1962, there were also much smaller differences between the classes in income, lifestyle, cuisine, housing, entertainment, and values. Except for the old-moneyed super-rich concentrated in the Northeast, the classes tended to shop at the same stores, eat the same Jell-O salad, watch the same TV shows, drive the same brands of cars, and live in modest homes. It was a time before McMansions, BMWs, arugula, J. Crew, SAT prep courses, stadium skyboxes, and SubZero appliances. Of course, as Murray points out, it wasn’t all rosy back then, especially with respect to attitudes about race and gender.
Incomes and lifestyles have improved dramatically for the new upper class, because women with high IQs, high cognitive abilities, high educational attainment, high industriousness, and high earning power are marrying men with the same characteristics--and then most of them are staying married. In turn, they are producing offspring with the same characteristics and then lavishing every possible advantage on them, including the advantage of having married parents to share the upbringing and to be positive role models.
This is not the situation for lower-class whites.
Not only are marriage rates significantly lower among this class, as we have seen, but male industriousness is also significantly lower. Even before the current recession, many white men were not working enough hours to make a living, although jobs were available. Murray defines “making a living” as earning an income large enough to put a household of two above the poverty line, which was $14,634 in 2010. He then gives an example of what it takes to pass that threshold:
Suppose that in 2010 you held the job that is synonymous with low prestige and pay--janitor. If you made exactly the average hourly wage of all janitors, $11.60, and you worked forty-hour weeks, your income in 2010 would have passed my definition of making a living in the thirty-first week of the year.
The foregoing resonates with this writer, who once worked as a janitor on the lowest rung of an otherwise all-black maintenance crew. Coincidentally, this was in 1962, at a time when life was tough for blacks in my hometown of St. Louis, where Democrat unions and the city machine excluded them from opportunities; but those who were industrious and married were climbing the socioeconomic ladder at about the same speed as my working-class parents.
Today, I see similar progress among married Mexican immigrants, who do indeed take jobs that lower-class whites won’t take. For example, in my adopted hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., the going rate to trim the fronds from the top of tall palm trees and to haul away the trimmings is $30-$35 for about an hour’s labor. In 20 years, I’ve never seen a non-Hispanic white man do this very hard work. However, I do see scores of single white men covered with grotesque tattoos and working in low-wage, part-time jobs in convenience stores owned by married Asians who work ungodly hours to be able to send their children to good universities.
Murray lays part of the blame on a decline in religiosity and honesty in society as a whole but particularly among lower-class whites. This is his weakest contention, one without compelling statistics to support it.
Other flaws in the book are that it is somewhat disjointed and written in academic prose not conducive to attracting a wider audience. Also, his use of two hypothetical towns to make his points doesn’t work well, and some of the graphs are difficult to decipher.
But, flaws and all, this is an important book for those who believe the nation is in decline and want to know why. The book will give part of the answer, an answer that the bubble people don’t want to hear.
Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.