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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Coming Apart’

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COMING APART: THE STATE OF WHITE AMERICA, 1960-2010
By Charles Murray
Crown Forum, $27, 416 pages

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case, the picture is a graph. Many graphs, in fact, but all of them depict the same pattern: Two lines start close together in the 1950s, diverge sharply over the decades and end with a gaping chasm between them today. They tell the story of a polarized upper and lower class in America, not just in income, but also in core values and habits. It's a polarization that, if it persists, will unmake America as we know it.

The graphs are lifted from the pages of Charles Murray's latest, and probably last, book, "Coming Apart." For readers familiar with the author's career-long devotion to the subject of social stratification in American life, "Coming Apart" is vintage Murray and a magnum opus of sorts. Though the ideas in the book aren't new - some sections are found nearly verbatim in earlier works - the book is full of data that bring Mr. Murray's picture of an America coming apart at the seams up to the present day. And popular opinion finally has caught up with the author.

Concerning the trends Mr. Murray describes, Walter Russell Meade writes, "A free floating anger stemming from the breakdown of a broadly accepted social model helps power political currents on both ends of the spectrum." If the Tea Party folks and the Occupy folks share an intellectual grandfather, it's Charles Murray.

What social model and what happened to it? The tale goes like this: Back in the day (pre-1960, roughly) nearly all Americans lived lives that were familiar to their fellow countrymen. The broad sweep of Americans shared what Mr. Murray calls the "founding virtues" - industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion.

Americans married, had children, went to church sometimes and participated in the civic life of their community. Able-bodied men worked. To be sure, there were differences between the classes, but they weren't dramatic, and they didn't concern core behavior. "Affluence in 1963," Mr. Murray writes, "meant enough money to afford a somewhat higher standard of living than other people, not a markedly different lifestyle." The warp and woof of life was the same.

That began to change in the 1960s. Technological advances revolutionized the way we work and do business. As a result, the economy ever more handsomely rewarded brainpower and education at the same time that it eroded the earning power of working-class Americans. It's no surprise, Mr. Murray writes, that "just about all of the benefits of economic growth from 1970 to 2010 went to people in the upper half of the income distribution," and most of that accrued to the top 5 percent.

Median family income for the bottom half fell slightly, with working-class males feeling particularly squeezed. Even before the current recession, a working-class man was more likely to be on disability, in prison or otherwise out of the workforce, more likely to be unemployed, or, if holding down a job, more likely to work fewer hours.

The massive deterioration in male industriousness in the lower classes was accompanied by a transformation in habits regarding marriage and family formation. The working-class American family, long portrayed as a bastion of traditional values, turned out to be anything but. Marriage rates tanked in working-class America, while divorce and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. (To make clear that this is an issue of class and not race, Mr. Murray looks only at white Americans.)

"Over the last half century," Mr. Murray writes, "marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes." To make matters worse, Mr. Murray reports that when it comes to human happiness, a good marriage and a rewarding vocation are paramount. Since the 1970s, self-reported happiness has plummeted in working-class and poor communities.

Did economic changes corrode marriage and family in working-class America? Mr. Murray skirts the issue, perhaps because he believes that the underlying trends ripping up the old social model are too strong to be overcome and should not be overcome. After all, the trends point toward a more efficient and productive future.

One thing we can change, Mr. Murray says, is government policy, for it too is to blame for the breakdown of family and community. "When the government intervenes to help," Mr. Murray writes, "it enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives" - marriage and the myriad associations Americans voluntarily formed to tackle communal problems.

But "Coming Apart" is more than a reproach of the modern welfare state. The book's strongest message is for America's privileged. Mr. Murray calls on members of the new upper class, who have isolated themselves in geographic and cultural enclaves, to engage themselves and their children in the rest of America, for their own sake. From its founding, America distinguished itself as a land of rollicking interaction. To preserve that heritage, Mr. Murray reminds America's most advantaged that it is more rewarding to lead a textured life, enmeshed with the lives of others who possess a wide range of virtues and troubles.

Phil Brand is the author of "The Neighbor's Kid: A Cross-Country Journey in Search of What Education Means to Americans" (Capital Research Center, 2010).

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