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From the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Fishtown vs. Belmont by Denyse O'Leary

Fishtown vs. Belmont

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010
by Charles Murray
Crown Forum, 2012
(416 pages, $27.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Denyse O'Leary

The American working class, according to Charles Murray's recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is letting go of everything that distinguished it decades ago, including work, marriage, volunteering, and churchgoing. But the middle class, for the most part, isn't.

His thesis, that the United States is dividing starkly into an upper and a lower class, hit the talk shops at the end of January as a surprise for many. Famously—well, infamously, really—the working class in the 2000s has been described as clinging bitterly to guns and religion. Actually, if sociologist Charles Murray is right, they may be clinging to guns but surely not to religion.

The critics' reaction has been curious. Many don't trouble to offer a convincing case against his thesis; they simply imply that virtuous people should not accept it. That's not much of a counter-argument against masses of data. Hostile reviews tend to nitpick, settle scores, or assign blame, which Murray refuses to do. Such tactics focus attention away from the big picture, which he describes as follows.

Letting Go of Marriage

In working-class neighborhoods like Murray's statistically emblematic "Fishtown," nonmarital births as of 2008 were around 43 to 48 percent of all births. In nearby middle-class neighborhoods like his emblematic "Belmont," they were around 6 to 8 percent (p. 163).

One outcome is that when Belmonters defend the mass lone-motherhood lifestyle in the media, they are usually talking about something with which they have no personal experience. Primatologist Sarah Hrdy, discussing what we can learn from apes, conceded to a Scientific American reviewer that children thrive best in two-parent families. Then she challenged:

But we don't know, for example, that those children are better off than they would be if they were in a family with a mother and a father and a grandmother and nieces and nephews in the family, or if they were better off with a grandmother, an aunt, and a mother. (Interview with Eric Michael Johnson, March 16, 2012)

The whiff from the groves of academe is rather pungent here. A parent group consisting of a grandmother, an aunt, and a mother is likely a product of three failed relationships with men. In a decaying neighborhood, it is probably also poor, fragile, and vulnerable. Put another way, some research projects really aren't worth doing.

Commentator Mark Steyn provides this snapshot of lone motherhood:

If, as I do, you live in the country, you have dozens of neighbors like Miss Strader—nice high-school girls who babysit your kids; you lose touch, they move to the next town, and you bump into them a couple of years later doing the late shift at the diner or the general store; they're 23 or 24, with three kids by three different guys. And they're still nice, and still kinda pretty, if aged beyond their years. But life and its opportunities are fled. (National Review Online, "The Corner," February 18, 2012)

The reason life's opportunities are fled is not that the neighbors have heaped moral condemnation upon "Miss Strader." It is the fact that no one man feels motivated, let alone obligated, to share the load with her.

Parents can't always help much either. Joe and Debbie, a recently retired Fishtown couple, had paid off their house by 1990 and are now moving to a seniors' condo. When they got married four decades ago, Joe's parents gave them a car and Debbie's parents gave them a down payment. They would like to help their two kids the same way. But here's the dilemma: Their son has two children with two different women and is now living with a third. Their daughter has a son with a man who is talking about moving to Minneapolis, and it's unclear whether he plans to take their daughter and the child with him or is just drifting away. Joe and Debbie fear that someone with whom they have no relationship or influence will end up in control of the money. So they keep it in savings for now.

The fact that fathers don't stick around only scratches the surface: Dad's parents and siblings—in traditional families, sources of capital, first jobs, and places to stay—are often missing, too. Or they are as unsure how to help as are Joe and Debbie.

Some, including Hrdy, propose co-operative child-raising as a solution. But if a community's values cannot sustain nuclear families, how likely are they to sustain much larger groups? Others agitate for more government aid. But what is missing is an extended family, and the government is not an extended family.

Letting Go of Work

Today, many fewer Fishtown men work full time: In 1960, 81 percent of Fishtown households had someone working at least 40 hours a week, while in Belmont, 90 percent of households did. By 2008, Belmont's figure had declined just slightly, to 87 percent, but Fishtown's had dropped to 60 percent. And that was before the 2008 recession began. As of March 2010, Belmont was still at 87 percent, while Fishtown was down to 53 percent (p. 188).

Murray argues, controversially, that the loss of industrial jobs is not the whole explanation, because almost any fulltime employment wards off poverty. Or does it? If a man has several children with different women in different places (an increasingly common pattern), it may be economically unwise to work much.

Another story from the front: Steady Eddy used to work for Joe Money, and he expected that his son, Ed Jr., would work there, too. But the plant closed, and now his son just works odd jobs off and on. He lives sporadically in Eddy's finished basement or with girlfriends. Ed has a child, a three-year-old girl who lives with her mother and another man. He doesn't visit her very often because he and the other man don't get on. That could be, in part, because his financial support is sporadic.

Many of Ed's friends aren't working seriously, either. The government has a program to create jobs, in which Ed could get trained and hired as an addiction counselor. His father wants him to go to trade school instead. It's a difficult decision for Ed, because his future is so much less certain than his dad's was at the same age.

Letting Go of Doing Good

Several key, decades-long trends show that volunteerism, giving, and community involvement have declined in Fishtown as well. Murray cites some statistics:

• [Percentage of adults who] attended a public meeting on town or school affairs: Down 35% from 1973 to 1994.
• Percentage of parents with children under age 18 who are members of the PTA: Down 61% from 1960 to 1997.
• [Percentage who] served as an officer of some club or organization: Down 42% from 1973 to 1994.
• United Way contributions as a percentage of personal income: Down 55 percent from 1963 to 1998. (p. 241)

Volunteering tends to follow life choices such as marriage and work. When people marry, they acquire causes. Joe, for instance, has been stuck with carrying the signs in his van for the Run for Juvenile Diabetes ever since Debbie's nephew was diagnosed. Similarly, when Money, Inc., had a big plant in Fishtown, the company matched employees' donations to health charities and sponsored their fundraising fun. When the plant closed, ex-employees—often

now working in smaller, poorer, and more stressful workplaces—lost a vast social structure that had made giving easier. Increasingly, Fishtowners believe that if people are hurting, the government must be there to help.

Letting Go of Churchgoing

Fishtowners still tell the census takers that they are Christians, but the majority (59 percent) do not go to church. Strikingly, a minority of middle-class Belmont residents, 41 percent, do not go to church (p. 204).

What? Where are the guns and religion of Fishtown? Where are the shackles of superstition that Belmont has supposedly thrown off? Murray offers two observations on the difference between what we hear from the media and what we see in social surveys:

There is indeed evidence that the most prominent scientists and academics are secular. When academics who were members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences were polled in 1996, 65 percent responded that they did not believe in God. But Belmont is not filled with members of the National Academy of Sciences. Of the academics and scientists in the GSS sample, only 16 percent said they had no religion. It should not be surprising that lots of people in Belmont still go to church (p. 206).

Second, the number of fundamentalists in Fishtown has increased only slightly, from 32 to 34 percent (pp. 206–207). They stand out more than they used to because they are the ones who still go to church.

Relating churchgoing to social decline, Murray notes,

People who don't go to church can be just as morally upright as people who do, but as a group they do not generate the social capital that the churchgoing population generates—it's not their "fault" that social capital deteriorates, but that doesn't make the deterioration any less real (p. 210).

Murray doesn't address why churches are critical to social capital, but here's a possibility: The doctrine of sin implies that at least some of our problems are our own fault, in which case we must change, not society. By contrast, many messages from secular media encourage us to blame other people and things for our problems—bad genes, bad parenting, big business, big government, and so on. These messages absolve us of responsibility, and some of them create resentment. Not surprisingly, then, crime has also increased dramatically in Fishtown, though not in Belmont (pp. 219–221).

Reluctant to Judge

Media reporting on Fishtown's decline is a complex affair, seemingly designed both to reveal and to conceal. When U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that mass lone motherhood is a social problem, commentators acted shocked. One of them mocked Romney's Mormon religion—as if that were the only possible explanation for such a far-out view. Yet sociologists of all political affiliations generally consider this an accepted fact: "No matter what the outcome being examined . . . the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married" (p. 158).

So why can't mainstream media acknowledge the mainstream opinion within the discipline?

Journalists cater to people who read, which means mostly Belmonters. To succeed, most journalists must finance living in or near Belmont on incomes much closer to those of Fishtown (p. 51). If they don't interpret the world the way Belmont sees it, they will be marginalized. But they very much do want to see the world the way Belmont sees it, that is, to see it non-judgmentally. From


Nonjudgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new-upper-class culture. The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for those who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for non-marital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals. When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites (pp. 289–290).

Reluctant to Lead

We must leave for another day the story of why criticizing and attacking these three groups is okay. In general, though, despite being groomed and educated to lead, Belmonters do not wish to lead. Refusing to judge, when outcomes are clear, signals their abdication. In Francis Schaeffer's words, they want personal peace and affluence, which Murray considers a symptom of civilizational decline.

Murray's own proposed solutions aren't much good, though. As a libertarian, he wishes that some rich people would display their wealth less ostentatiously and that middle-class people would move into poor neighborhoods to model more constructive lifestyles. As if.

At least he refuses to sugarcoat the decline in working-class American life as some bold new liberation. And anyone who wants to tackle the problem should start with his massive statistical analysis, even if they strongly disagree with his conclusions. • 

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