Charles Murray is no stranger to controversy. In 1994, as the co-author of the bestselling book The Bell Curve, Murray inflamed the passions of critics and supporters alike by arguing in the vein of genetic determinism that intelligence was one of the most important factors that determined one’s lot in life. Now 18 years later, Murray has expounded upon this argument to address one of the most divisive issues facing the United States: income inequality.
Coming Apart focuses on the ever-increasing differences between Murray’s “new” upper and lower classes, which developed after 1960 because of the large premium placed on intellectual ability in the workplace. The new upper class is made up of college graduates who work in managerial positions or professional occupations and belong to the top 5 percent of all income earners. Murray’s new lower class comprises working-age men who are unemployed or underemployed and don’t make enough by themselves to put a household of two above the poverty line, single mother with minor-aged children, and an ill-defined group of men and women who, as Murray puts it, are “disconnected from the matrix of community life.” This lower class comprises close to 20 percent of the American population, and they are unsurprisingly located in the poorest neighborhoods.
Murray then identifies four “founding virtues” of America incorporating marriage, industriousness, religion, and honesty. He declares the “four aspects of American life were so completely accepted as essential that, for practical purposes, you would be hard put to find an eighteenth-century founder or nineteenth-century commentator who dissented from any of them.” Charles Murray’s premise in Coming Apart is that the decline of the four founding virtues among the people of the new lower class has contributed to their socioeconomic stagnation, while the preservation of those values among the people of the new upper class produces their prosperity.
Murray’s tale about the decline of his four founding virtues digs deep into the underlying causes of socioeconomic inequality. He chose his four virtues well for the most part, although I do not think Murray should have treated them all equally. Honesty and industriousness form the weakest part of his argument because they are more abstract than marriage and religiosity. Murray does have facts and figures to support his claim that honesty and industriousness are in decline, but he cannot make many concrete observations because it is difficult to quantify them. The institutions of marriage and religion are much more important because it is easier to cede that their decline precipitated the deterioration in honesty and industriousness.
Murray’s argument concerning marriage is a revelation because he takes many different statistics that seem relatively harmless on their own and shows how disastrous their combined effect has been for the United States. Marriage rates have fallen in everywhere in our society, but while the rate seems to have stabilized among the upper class, it has continued to decline in the lower class. The number of people in the lower class who are divorced or have never been married has skyrocketed since 1960, and thus many children are born and raised in single-parent households. There are those who argue that single parents can be just as effective at raising a child as a two parents, but even they cannot deny that lower class children raised by single mothers generally have access to fewer resources and opportunities as their peers with two parents. This is an enormous problem because children do not learn vital lessons that helped preceding generations get ahead. The decline of marriage also ties in well with the decline of religiosity because they both began their deterioration at around the same time. In fact, it could be argued that declining religiousness of the American population contributed to the decline in marriage because people felt it was less necessary to get married as the taboo against having children out of wedlock disappeared.
Murray provides a refutation of the commonly held misconception that poorer working class whites are more religious than their upper class counterparts. Citing evidence gathered in the General Social Survey distributed since the 1970s, Murray shows that while the amount of people in the upper and lower classes who consider themselves to be either religious or secular is about the same, the percentage of people in the upper class who regularly attend a worship service is about 15 percent higher than in the lower class. Since organized religion provides a weekly refresher course on the importance of good behavior to followers, the particularly sharp decline in religiosity in both classes might help explain the increase in all types of crimes. The situation in the lower class is worse because there has been a correspondingly larger decrease in religiosity.
American society has changed greatly in the last several decades due to the decline of Murray’s founding virtues. The decline disproportionately affected the lower class, and the upper class is understandably drifting apart from the rest of society. The members of both classes tend to live in clusters of communities with people similar to them. Murray succinctly points out the problem with this when he says “It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisors cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.” Members of the upper class tend to make far-reaching decisions that affect members of all other classes, but how can they make decisions that benefit people they do not understand? Unless members of the new upper class make a conscious effort to address their increasing separation from the lower class, no amount of welfare or social programs will be able to resolve the issue of income inequality.