Charles Murray's 'Coming Apart' raises alarm over our civic culture

March 5, 2012 3:17 pm
  • Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010" raises an alarm about four trends: marriage rates, children born outside of marriage, employment and religious faith.
    Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010" raises an alarm about four trends: marriage rates, children born outside of marriage, employment and religious faith.
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BURKITTSVILLE, Md. -- In Charles Murray's world, white Americans increasingly live in one of two places.

The first he calls Belmont, where affluent families have high rates of marriage, advanced education, a strong work ethic and fairly high church attendance. The other he calls Fishtown, and it is marked by many single-parent families, men dropping out of the workforce, lower education rates and declining religious faith.

Most of the families in Belmont -- which is also the name of the real-life home town of presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- make more than $100,000 a year. Most in Fishtown make less than $50,000 a year.

But it is not their economic disparity that he focuses on in his new book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." Instead, it is what he calls the disappearance of America's civic culture.

"The American project," he writes, "consists of the continuing effort ... to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.

"That culture was so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion. To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured. That culture is unraveling."

Specifically, Mr. Murray raises an alarm about four trends: marriage rates, children born outside of marriage, employment and religious faith. He examines those factors for prime working-age adults, ages 30 to 49.

In 1960, he says, marriage rates in that group were high for affluent and poorer whites: 94 percent in Belmont and 84 percent in Fishtown. Today, the rate has slipped somewhat among richer Americans but still stands at 83 percent. In Fishtown, though, only a minority of people -- 48 percent -- are married.

Despite major changes in the lives of women since that time, Mr. Murray said, only 6 percent of births among college-educated women occur outside marriage today, he said, but for women with a high school education or less, 44 percent of children are now born to women who aren't married.

In addition, he notes, the proportion of men no longer seeking work in Fishtown is now 12 percent -- four times higher than in 1968 -- and the proportion of residents who either have no stated religion or go to church only once a year has climbed to 60 percent, compared to about 40 percent among more affluent whites.

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130.
First Published 2012-03-04 23:14:49

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