“Coming Apart” over and over again

by Melanie Heath, author of One Marriage under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America (forthcoming from NYU Press in April)

There is not much new in Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum). The book rehearses the same old tired arguments that conservatives have been making for years: there is a decline in core American values like religious faith, hard work and marriage. This crisis and America’s economic woes arise from cultural factors like a preponderance of lazy men and morally loose women who have kids out of wedlock. Conservatives have a long history of demonizing “welfare queens,” black women who improperly bear children out of wedlock. In his earlier book (1984), Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, Murray argued vigorously for the end of welfare because he felt that it encouraged unwed motherhood in this population. In the current version, Murray focuses on white America to argue that poor and working-class whites—approximately 30 percent of the white population he pseudonymously calls “Fishtown, Pa.” (Murray offers “fictionalized” forms of these communities in statistically adjusted models)—are turning away from core American values of industriousness, honesty, religion, and marriage. This is in comparison to the top 20 percent in “Belmont, Mass.” who have settled back to embrace cultural values of yesteryear, such as marriage and hard work, in opposition to the countercultural dynamic of the 1960s and 1970s.

Again, Murray’s focus on a white “underclass” is not new. In the mid-1990s, he wrote that the “black story” is old news; the new trend that “threatens the U.S. is white illegitimacy” in which whites now account for the most people living in poverty, the most unwed childbearing, and the most women on welfare. For Murray, “the brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic minority. It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.” As is true of the majority of Murray’s thinking, his depiction of a white underclass relies on racialized codes meant to place poor white families in the realm of black deviancy. In the current version, Murray goes one step farther to argue that the exclusivity of elites works as a self-fulfilling prophecy: Elites marry one another (“homogamy”) to guarantee their children’s future success through genetic intelligence (reminiscent of arguments in the controversial Bell Curve) and a culture that nourishes achievement through access to elite education.

Social scientists have long been critical of these types of arguments that incorporate social scientific research in the way that Murray does. A recent article in the Chronicle for Higher Education explains the problem:

Although his descriptions of societal problems echo a lot of research performed by other scholars, he takes leaps in naming the causes or proposing solutions. Mr. Conley of New York University said the idea that certain values, such as religiosity, lead to financial success “is a big, big assumption that outpaces the evidence,” because social scientists cannot conclusively prove such causal relationships without conducting randomized experiments on humans.

I make a similar argument in my forthcoming book, One Marriage under God.     Policymakers and other “experts” of the American marriage promotion movement outpace the evidence they offer when they argue that a decline in marriage and an increase in out-of-wedlock births are causing other societal problems. For example, an article published by the Institute for American Values states: “Weakening of marriage costs taxpayers billions of dollars — in more jails, welfare payments, medical costs, court costs, remedial education, and juvenile justice systems — and creates untold suffering for millions of children and for society as a whole.” These kinds of arguments have something in common. They blame societal problems on the bad behavior of low-income (and often racialized depictions of) individuals who are portrayed as perpetuating the demoralization of society. In Murray’s view, whites in the lower social-economic strata have less cognitive ability to resist these bad values and thus succumb to higher rates of family dissolution, unwed births, joblessness, and criminality. The language is tedious and anticipated. It’s always about drug use, lack of responsibility, welfare abuse, and non-marital births. Moving forward means finally putting to rest these old stale cultural warrior arguments to focus on real solutions to poverty. But this certainly won’t happen as long as books like Coming Apart continue to rehearse the same worn-out and feeble illogic.

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