(Source: Charlotte Observer)

Thanks to extremely loud and (regrettably) close sloganeering by the Occupy movement, we’ve heard quite a bit in recent months about inequality in America. If the Occupiers’ 1 percent vs. 99 percent formulation is too blunt to merit serious engagement, the Occupiers’ preoccupation with inequality has made it easier for more thoughtful analysts on both the left and the right to gain air time.

“Coming Apart,” the latest offering by the libertarian social scientist Charles Murray, is a case in point. Whether or not one agrees with the author’s analysis or the causal sequence he develops, the empirical evidence he marshals on the increasing divide in “White America” is as important as it is disturbing.

In the eyes of Murray, whose earlier works “Losing Ground” (1984) and (with Richard Herrnstein) “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” (1994) have rendered him a bête noir to liberals, white America has been subject/subjected to a pernicious – and pervasive – social bifurcation over the past half-century. To Murray, this split manifests most explicitly in the rise of a new upper class and a new lower class, which threatens the foundations of our society – indeed, the very idea of America.

The former, constituting about 5 percent of the American population, is comprised of highly educated super achievers, the “cognitive elite” possessed of the brains, values and behaviors that allow its members to thrive in the new global economy that rewards talent as never before. This “creative class” of affluent “mind workers” is concentrated geographically in a small number of isolated “SuperZips” around the country, increasingly cordoning off itself and its institutions from the rest of American society. Although the new upper class is decidedly liberal in its political and social views, it is surprisingly traditional or even “conservative” in its social behavior, with robust marriage rates, very high rates of labor force participation, strong marks for honesty and personal integrity, and relatively impressive rates of religiosity, as measured by attendance at worship services. The upshot of such values and behaviors is large stocks of valuable “social capital” – engagement in civic life – at least in the SuperZips wherein the elite lives.

The situation for the “new lower class” – the bottom third of the white working class – is far different, in many ways the obverse of that of the new elite. Employing data compiled by the U.S. Census and National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, Murray finds that large segments of the white working class, contrary to popular belief, no longer safeguard, much less adhere to, “core” American values and behavior. The “new lower class” is now marked by low marriage rates and shockingly high numbers of “illegitimate” births; by nonparticipation in the labor force by surprisingly high proportions of male workers in their prime; by crime rates far higher than those in upper-middle-class areas; and by steep declines in attendance in worship services and in religiosity in general. To Murray, these values and behaviors have led to the decay of social institutions in many white working-class neighborhoods, and to outright social collapse in some.

The author attributes most of these changes to the unfortunate abandonment by many of the cultural virtues upon which America was founded. This reviewer – and many other readers, I suspect – would give much greater weight to material factors, particularly the loss of decent jobs in many formerly stable white working-class neighborhoods. Nonetheless, we are in Murray’s debt for bringing the “two-ness” of white America to the attention of the 99 percent otherwise absorbed.

(Source: Charlotte Observer)


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