Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: Falling Apart

I decided to read more books I think I'll disagree with. In that spirit, I just finished Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Murray lays out the evidence that while upper-class white Americans haven't changed much in terms of work, religiosity, and marriage, lower-class whites have. By upper-class he means college-educated people in the top 20% of earners, and by lower-class he means the bottom 30% of earners, which encompasses some working class and some non-working people. (He limits his discussion to whites to demonstrate that he's talking about class and not race differences. He states that the same patterns hold true among other races.)

While my sociology and social work background have emphasized economic and structural disparities in explaining why some groups have it worse than others, Murray points to cultural changes. For example, while the rate of physical accidents is much lower than it was in the 60s, the percentage of people on disability is much higher. To be fair, I'm not sure how much of this is due to the increase in laziness that Murray alleges, and how much is due to changes in definitions of disability such as the inclusion of mental illness.

Murray looks at four of what he considers cardinal values: marriage, industriousness, religiosity, and honesty (in the sense of not committing crimes). While some of these raised my ideology red flags, he does back them up with data about actual quality of life. Declining religiosity, he argues, is correlated with weaker social ties and lower self-reported happiness. Nations without a hardworking population will fail, he argues (taking some cheap shots at Europe along the way). And the decline of marriage, both in terms of higher divorce rates and more never-married adults, is bad for kids. He lays out the evidence that children not raised by their married, biological parents (controlled for income) do worse in terms of delinquency, childhood illness, school dropout rates, crime, early death, and emotional health.

I kept waiting to hear what practical policy changes Murray suggested, but his recommendations were vague. He accuses the upper class of being out of touch with mainstream America (there's a quiz including questions like: have you watched a full episode of Oprah? Have you eaten at a Waffle House this year?) I agree that there's a cultural divide, but it's not clear why exactly this is bad, or how improving my knowledge of NASCAR will help the country.

The piece of Murray's advice I found most interesting was that the upper class "preach what they practice." He says upper-class families still have a grip on industriousness, marriage, and honesty, and that these values are good for them and their families. Keeping these values to themselves and allowing the poor to destroy themselves, he says, will ultimately destroy the nation. And he argues that staying politely silent when you watch people choose foolishly is not actually an act of kindness.

I'm not too interested in Murray's project of preserving the America envisioned by its founders. I'm not interested in blaming the poor for being poor. I'm not interested in blaming single parents for the demise of their relationships. And it goes against every bit of my training to say that some family styles work better than others. But I found the facts on marriage and children especially hard to look away from: both rich and poor used to have kids largely within marriage. The rich still do, but poor people now do it less. Which indicates culture, not just economic forces. And the kids whose parents aren't married to each other suffer for it.

Murray doesn't directly say that he wants more stigma against bearing children outside of marriage. And stigma seems terribly unfair, because it also targets the children who didn't choose their parents' actions. But I wonder - would it actually be better for children overall if there were more stigma? If having married parents is so important, would it be better to exert a bit more social pressure on parents to make that happen?

Followup post: Why kids come out that way

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