Politics & Policy

‘Coming Apart at the Seams’

America’s deepening class divide

The size of government threatens the American way of life as we know it. The solution is straightforward — cut government. A vibrant grassroots movement insists that it happen, and Washington is lousy with rival plans for how to go about it.

The social threat to the American way of life is as dire, if not more so. But it is more insidious, and more complicated. No grassroots movement has mobilized against it, and no high-profile bipartisan commission is suggesting remedies. Yet it proceeds apace, all but ignored except in the lives of Americans.

Among those trying to sound the alarm is Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, an author and a thinker who has a well-earned reputation for prescience and fearlessness. In a bracing lecture on “The State of White America,” he notes that America has long had an exceptional civic culture. “That culture is unraveling,” he warns. “America is coming apart at the seams. Not the seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.”

Murray takes whites as his subject to avoid the question of whether racism is responsible for the problem he describes, namely the “emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values.”

Murray identifies what he calls the “founding virtues,” such as marriage, industriousness, and religiosity, which have always been considered the social basis of self-government. He looks at whites aged 30–49 and divides them into the top 20 percent socio-economically and the bottom 30 percent. The top tier is basically the upper middle class, the bottom the working class. He finds two worlds, increasingly separate and unequal.

In 1960, everyone was married — 88 percent of the upper middle class and 83 percent of the working class. In 2010, 83 percent of the upper middle class is married and only 48 percent of the working class. This gap “amounts to a revolution in the separation of classes.” In 1960, births to single mothers in the working class were just 6 percent; now they are close to 50 percent.

When it comes to industriousness, there’s the same divergence. In 1960, 1.5 percent of men in the upper middle class were out of the workforce; it’s 2 percent now. In 1968, the number for working-class men hit a low of 5 percent; even before the spike in unemployment after the financial crisis, it was 12 percent in 2008. “The deteriorations in industriousness,” Murray notes, “have occurred in labor markets that were booming as well as in soft ones.”

Although secularization has long been on the rise, it’s more pronounced in the working class. Among the upper middle class, 42 percent say they either don’t believe in God or don’t go to church. In the working class, it’s 61 percent. In other words, a majority of the upper middle class still has some religious commitment, while a majority of the working class does not.

These trends mean, just as it is suffering economically, the working class is getting cut off from the richest sources of social capital: marriage, two-parent families, and church-going. More people are falling into a lower class characterized by men who can’t make a minimal living and single women with children. Murray argues that America can maintain its national power even if these trends continue. With a growing lower class “increasingly unsuited for citizenry in a free society,” though, it will no longer be the country we once knew.

He quotes the 19th-century observer of American life Francis Grund: “The American Constitution is remarkable for its simplicity; but it can only suffice a people habitually correct in their actions, and would be utterly inadequate to the wants of a different nation. Change the domestic habits of the Americans, their religious devotion, and their high respect for morality, and it will not be necessary to change a single letter of the Constitution in order to vary the whole form of their government.”

When it comes to saving the American way, balancing the budget is the easy part.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.


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