Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The One Percent

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The One Percent

Article excerpt

In an important new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray observes that America has become increasingly divided. Once largely united by a common middle-class culture, we're now trending in different directions, one up and toward a new elite class, the other down toward a more and more dysfunctional working class. "The divergence into these separate classes, if it continues," Murray argues, "will end what has made America America."

The economic divergence is old news. Over the past fifty years, household income for the top 1 percent has grown from $200,000 (in today's dollars) to $400,000. Meanwhile, household income for the bottom half of Americans has stayed flat, and would have fallen for many were it not for increased spending on government programs and the earned income tax credit.

Liberals presume that the income gap is the problem. We need to combat income inequality, we are told, which means raising taxes on the winners in the global economy, so that the government can transfer even more wealth to the poor. Murray's analysis is important because it indicates that this alone won't reduce the growing and troubling divide between Americans, because the difference is more a function of moral capital than income and assets. It's the culture, stupid.

The new elites live in places like Belmont, the toney Boston suburb and the name Murray uses as shorthand for wealthy and influential Americans. When he speaks of "Belmont," he is referring to a statistical cohort created by aggregating the affluent, well-educated, and professionally successful people throughout America. All told, about 20 percent of white Americans live in statistical Belmont. They are the new upper class.

Folks in the bottom third live in Fishtown. The real Fishtown is a white working-class neighborhood in northeastern Philadelphia that has been the subject of a number of sociological studies over the past fifty years. Murray draws on those studies, but in Coming Apart, Fishtown, like Belmont, is shorthand for a statistical cohort: people with blue-collar or low-level office jobs and no academic degree more advanced than a high-school diploma. These people make up the working class that is becoming America's new lower class.

The 1960s ushered in many changes, one of which was the end of the broad social consensus, call it bourgeois morality, that held sway among white Americans of all classes, upper, lower, and middle. What is striking, however, is that no thick, overarching social consensus has emerged after all the turmoil. Instead, as Murray charts in compelling detail, when it comes to behavior, affluent white America and poor white America have gone in two very different directions.

Take marriage. In 1960, the overwhelming majority of prime-age white adults (the cohort of 30 to 49-year-olds that Murray focuses on) in Belmont and Fishtown were married, bore very few children out of wedlock, and rarely divorced. Over time the sexual revolution and women's movement changed attitudes dramatically. But Murray's analysis shows that Belmont residents have readjusted in ways that largely preserve marriage as the norm. Today 85 percent of Belmont is married.

Although private schools in the real Belmont and other neighborhoods populated by the affluent teach well-todo teenagers to be nonjudgmental, tolerant, and inclusive, the social environment is still safely bourgeois. Not only does marriage remain the norm, but hardly anybody in statistical Belmont is getting divorced (only slightly more than 5 percent), fewer than 5 percent of children are living with a single parent, and next to none of their classmates were born to unmarried mothers. In other words, today Belmont talks the talk of the sixties, but walks the walk of the fifties.

Meanwhile, sadly, statistical Fishtown is living the sixties. Less than 50 percent of prime-age adults are married. Their divorce rate is around 35 percent. …

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