By now Americans have heard just about every idea on how to fix our dismal economy, and we're only half way through the presidential election campaign. Much of the talk has centered on seemingly technical issues: the best tax policy to create jobs, the right design for programs to retrain those out of work, the best ways to measure and improve our schools in their jobs of educating the next generation of worker.
A worker's economic fortunes, however, aren't solely a function of his training and intelligence, or of the opportunities around him. They are also the product of personal qualities, like industriousness, self-discipline, thrift and reliability. And these don't simply arise spontaneously in us; they are cultivated by our parents, our neighbors, our schools. Preserving those qualities when they start to fade in a society isn't as easy as retooling the factory across town or starting up a store-front worker retraining program in a depressed neighborhood. Perhaps that's why politicians run from discussing the subject of the virtues essential for individual success in America. Better to cut ribbons on new schools, kiss babies and blame global forces for our economic woes.
In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell described the great movement in America, beginning in the 1960s, to reject those traditional qualities around which modern society had been organized and democracy and capitalism flourished. Out went a reverence for the strive and succeed work ethic, and what arose instead was what Bell described as a cultural revolution embracing an "aesthetic justification for life" in which "nothing is forbidden, all is to be explored." What grew was a disdain for institutions like marriage, religion, and the traditional workplace. By the 1970s Tom Wolfe could describe an emerging ‘me' generation whose pursuit of self-fulfillment one could see reflected in everything from declining worker productivity to rising numbers of divorces and children born to unmarried parents.
Much of this revolution originated among America's prosperous citizens and their children. And it only took some 20 years for them to see and understand the impact of this new ethic on themselves and their children and to begin rejecting it. Marriage rates stabilized among the prosperous, divorce declined, the pursuit of advanced degrees in a world that increasingly rewarded education grew.
But the rest of society didn't find it so easy to simply put on the breaks of this great cultural revolution and re-adopt the essential virtues for success. In The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties Legacy to the Underclass, Myron Magnet wrote of how America's elites were in a far better position to recover from their dalliance with a life in pursuit of self-gratification. Divorce might have been painful for their children, but the well-educated also had the resources to continue living comfortably in separate households after their marriages split up. When their kids who had dropped out of school in the 1960s suddenly decided it was time to go back, they could rely on parents with the wherewithal to send them on to a college education, and the cost was perhaps only a few years squandered.
The toll was far higher on those at the bottom of the economic rung, however. They found it more difficult to recover from family break up, from experiments with drugs, from dropping out of school. What arose from their failure to pick themselves up was an increase in intergenerational poverty as single, uneducated parents without skills, training or a grounding in the strive and succeed ethic themselves failed to pass on to their children the right script for success in America.
Now along comes Charles Murray who, in his new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, argues convincingly that the nightmare has spread far beyond the lowest economic rungs of America. There are two America's, Murray argues, and they diverge principally in their adherence to what he calls the Founding virtues. Whatever they may preach or however they may vote, members of our prosperous classes continue to embrace those virtues and transmit them to their children, while a growing portion of our working classes increasingly do not live by them. If you have not been following the data you might be surprised, even shocked, by what Murray tells us.
In a fictional town Murray creates called Belmont, the archetypal white upper middle class neighborhood, adherence to the qualities that Murray says helped create two centuries of American exceptionalism are not very different today than before the cultural revolution. Today, 83 percent of all adults are married and their children are growing up in intact households. Fewer than six percent of all births in Belmont are to unmarried parents. In Belmont, only 12 percent of workers work fewer than 40 years a week on average. The rate of imprisonment for residents of Belmont averages just 27 per every 100,000 residents.
The numbers are quite different in a fictional white working class neighborhood, which Murray calls Fishtown. There, the percentages of adults who are married has slid from 84 in the 1960s to 48 today. Nonmarital births to women in Fishtown have increased from a mere 6 percent some 50 years ago to 44 percent today (and are increasing at such a rate that they may soon account for half of all white working class births). That increase matters enormously because we now have a vast and credible literature of research on the performance of children growing up in single-parent families, and they struggle mightily when compared to children within intact families on everything from staying in school to staying on a job.
In Fishtown, industriousness has declined, too. The percentage of males with a high-school education or less who describe themselves as not available for work has risen from 3 percent in the 1960s to 12 before the current recession got underway, when unemployment was still low. Similarly, the percentage of those working less than 40 hours a week has doubled over the decades to 20 percent of Fishtown adult workers.
Crime has soared in Fishtown. Even with the decline in American crime since the mid-1990s, the crime rate is still 4.7 times higher today in Fishtown than in 1960. The number of the neighborhood's adult residents in jail has increased from 215 per 100,000 in 1974 (the first year statistics are available) to 965 per 100,000 today.For all the talk of how the evangelical religious revival is a lower-class phenomenon in America, Fishtown is actually far more secular than Belmont, too. Some 62 percent of Belmont's residents describe themselves as religious and attend church at least occasionally. By contrast, 59 percent of Fishtown's residents do not.
Murray has chosen to write specifically about white America as a way of getting beyond the complicating factors of racial or ethnic inequalities in the discussion of achievement in America. This is not, as Murray observes, a racial or ethnic issue when you see the way the behavior of a large chunk of the country's majority population has changed, too, in the last 50 years.
Murray quotes an early observer of America, Francis Grund, who observed in 1837 that the U.S Constitution was a simple document, yet it proved sufficient because of the unique qualities of those early Americans: ‘[The Constitution] can only suffice a people habitually correct in their actions," Grund wrote. "Change the domestic habits of the Americans," he added, and you would wind up with a different country in spite of our Constitution.
If Murray is right, we are getting to see now what that other country that Grund referred to will look like.
Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute