Review of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010
by Charles Murray
Crown Forum Books, 416 pages, 2012.

Review by Grant Morgan

Few social scientists have the ability to arouse as much controversy as Charles Murray. Part of the reason is that few are as adept at identifying which issue which will spur the most debate at any given time. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Murray has chosen to take on a subject that garnered a massive amount of media attention in the past year: class and social mobility.

Murray has a long history of instigating fierce debates on issues of class and social mobility. His most well-known previous book, The Bell Curve, published in 1994, sparked immense controversy for its thesis that differences in social outcomes can be explained largely by differences in IQ, and that “cognitive elites” are in increasingly separate in their habits from the remainder of society.
Murray’s other books, including Losing Ground and Real Education, have taken on such divisive topics as the impact of social welfare policy and the American education system on class mobility.

Many of these themes are revisited in Coming Apart, which is divided into two broad segments. The first identifies how the upper and lower-middle income segments of Americans have diverged over the past fifty years. Murray deliberately limits his statistics and arguments to non-Hispanic white Americans, not because other groups have not exhibited the same trends or merit less concern, but for a means of statistical control.

Murray’s intent here is to focus on class alone while avoiding complicated arguments about the impact of race. The divergence between the top and bottom income quintiles is illustrated in part by comparison of two fictitious cities, one with a population composed entirely of university-educated professionals (“Belmont”), the other with an entirely working-class population (“Fishtown”), and with each city having the average population characteristics of their respective groups.

Murray identifies three areas in which the most affluent Americans diverge from the remainder of society, and from the working class in particular. The first area is economic; the gap in inflation-adjusted average income has grown dramatically: members of the poorest 20% of the American population are poorer now than in 1970, whereas the income needed to place a household in the 80th percentile has tripled. The growth in the high-income bracket is ascribed to the usual economic and technological causes, such as globalization and the growth information technology.

The second divergence which Murray identifies is geographic. To a much greater extent than was the case fifty years ago, wealthy Americans live in economically segregated neighborhoods and send their children to economically homogenous schools. The children of “cognitive elites” go to school with, live near, and eventually marry people of the same background, with diminishing personal contact with members of other classes. Murray devotes significant space to identifying the specific neighborhoods, or “superzips” as he terms them, which house a large and growing percentage of wealthy and educated Americans. Murray cites ample evidence that the typical American neighborhood is less economically diverse than it was fifty years ago, and that the “typical” upper-income family is less likely to live next to a family of a different economic class than was previously the case. In short, the rich and near-rich are sorting themselves from the rest of the population. (The overall effect is that the children of professionals will have less exposure to the realities facing other segments of the population.)

The third major divergence identified is in the area of familial habits. Members of the upper class are more likely to delay having children, more likely to marry, and less likely to divorce than the population as a whole, particularly those at the bottom. While all social groups saw an increase in out-of-wedlock births and divorce rates between 1960 and 1980, these trends were largely reversed or stabilized after 1990 among upper income groups, but not among the rest of the population. So by 2008, only six to eight percent f births in “Belmont” would have been out of wedlock, as opposed to 43% to 48% in “Fishtown.” In the former locale, less than 10% of adults are divorced; in the latter, more than 30% are.
Murray argues these divergences are perpetuated by the university system, which has become increasingly effective at identifying the top high school students and ensuring that they spend critical formative years surrounded by other similarly gifted individuals.

Murray’s observations about the changes in America’s class system are generally well-grounded and fairly uncontroversial. It is in moving from observation to causal attribution that Coming Apart, for some readers, will come apart. Both his diagnosis as to the causes of the trends he identifies are, to say the least, debatable.

For example, Murray argues that the divergence in habits, such as marriage and consistent employment, are related to the decline of what he terms “founding virtues” in the working class. The bottom income fifth, unlike those at the top, failed to retain values such as industriousness, honesty, devotion to family, and religious faith. He cites the declining labor-force participation rate (independent of unemployment figures) and increased disability benefit collecting as evidence of the decline of industriousness. The increase in single-parent families, supported by the welfare state, is offered up as evidence of the decline of devotion to family.

Also, Murray cites persistently high crime (relative to 1960) as evidence of the decline in honesty, and declining church attendance among the working class (faster than among the elites) as proof of the decline of religious faith. Many of these arguments include sociological and anecdotal evidence from the actual Belmont and Fishtown.

The problem with Murray’s virtue-based argument is that it fails to account for the complexities of the trends he studies and over-simplifies the causation. For example, while church attendance has declined more rapidly among the working class, it has also declined across the board, as has personal religiosity, and the overall decline in this case far exceeds the extent of the divergence.

Crime has always been persistently higher among lower-income groups, and moreover, has declined substantially among them over the past twenty years. While labor force participation has continued to decline among the bottom fifth of the population, regardless of larger economic trends, it may be due to the persistent deindustrialization of America rather than the decline of individual industriousness. The marriage trends he cites, while certainly strongly correlated with poor economic outcomes, may be a case of two-way causality: children raised by single parents do worse in school and in securing employment, and men with low economic status have more difficulty marrying. The overall point is that while the social trends Murray cites certainly do have an impact on economic outcomes, the causes of them are more complex than he suggests, and therefore his advice that the elites should resume “preaching what they practice” appears wholly inadequate. Murray is correct in pointing out the economic consequences of familial breakdown, but his attribution of the problem purely to a decline in virtue is problematic.

Murray’s prognosis for the future of American society verges on wishful thinking. He predicts that the ongoing fiscal crisis of the European welfare states will have the effect of discouraging the United States from following the same path, instead inspiring a new “great awakening” and a return to what Murray describes as America’s founding virtues. He further suggests that the intellectual foundations of the progressive state will be gradually undermined, both by events which contradict the predictions of progressives and by discoveries in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology which reinforce conservative ideas about human nature and motivation.

These predictions are problematic on several levels. First, while demographic and fiscal realities are rendering large welfare states unsustainable, these realities are of little importance to those who rely upon them. One need only look to recent events in Greece for an example of how those with a vested interest in a large welfare state will fight tooth and nail to protect it, even when it is manifestly bankrupting their country. As a larger share of Americans become net collectors of government benefits, rather than net contributors, it is likely that they will exhibit the same behavior. There is now a larger coalition of government workers, academics, and the permanently dependent to fight against reforms than in the past, and this may make such reforms impossible. It is widely acknowledged that it will be enormously difficult to sustain the welfare state in its present form, yet proposing austerity remains a huge political risk. Even if extensive welfare states bankrupt nations, fail to meet their objectives, and are even eventually scientifically discredited, it is possible that too many people have too much invested in these programs for them to be abolished. Murray’s predictions would be more persuasive if he explained how they could be accomplished politically, rather than simply asserting them.

In summation, Coming Apart is likely to be controversial in several aspects. While Murray does an excellent job of identifying trends and explaining their significance, his causal arguments about those trends will be predictably polarizing along traditional left-right lines. Moreover, his prognosis for the social future of America should be a subject of debate, even among those who share similar political views. While Murray’s argument leaves much room for debate, it directly addresses a vitally important subject, and therefore is a debate worth having.

On issues of social mobility and economic polarization, Canada appears to be in a better position than the United States. The Canadian higher education system is less polarized and does not have the same sorting effect as that in the United States. Harvard admits less than 10% of applicants and charges more than $40,000 per year in tuition – whereas the University of Toronto admits 40% of applicants and charges between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the program. Canadian students from non-elite backgrounds therefore have substantially more access to educational and career opportunities, and students from elite backgrounds will spend their early 20’s in a more economically diverse classroom than their counterparts in the United States. There is also less multi-generational poverty in Canada, outside of native reserves. This does not mean that Canadian conservatives should be complacent on these issues, however. The recent census indicated that economic mobility among immigrants has declined in the past 20 years, and the industrial decline of central Canada may leave a larger class of long-term unemployed.

If a large, entrenched class of people emerges that believe they have no possibility of economic mobility —even if the reality is different as the statistics in Canada indicate—that belief, combined with a guilt-ridden elite who have little contact with this class, would form a strong base of political support for a expanded welfare state, and would weaken support for limited government.

It is therefore important that conservatives both continue to support policies conductive to social mobility) and articulate why these policies will be beneficial to middle and working-class constituents. Education reform is one promising area in this regard – conservatives should argue for higher standards in math and science, greater accountability for results from schools, and less time spent on “child-centered learning” or self-esteem. Governments could also divert funding and student aid towards more practically-oriented post-secondary programs.

Conservatives and libertarians – on both sides of the border- would do well to both show that they care about social mobility and persuade the public of the efficacy of their approaches to these issues. Simply ensuring that these issues are raised by conservatives is the greatest contribution of Coming Apart.