Is White, Working Class America 'Coming Apart'? In his new book, Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial The Bell Curve, argues that in an increasingly economically stratified America, the white working class is slipping behind.
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Is White, Working Class America 'Coming Apart'?

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Is White, Working Class America 'Coming Apart'?

Is White, Working Class America 'Coming Apart'?

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The social scientist Charles Murray writes this in his new book: Our nation is coming apart at the seams. Not ethnic seams, but the seams of class. Murray's book is, in fact, called "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010."

Over the past half century, he argues, white Americans have come to include a new upper class defined more than ever before by education and a new lower class characterized by the lack of it. And the new lower class is also less industrious, less likely to marry and raise children in a two-family household and less connected to the rest of society.

By focusing on whites, Murray tries to correct the assumption that these are markers of the American racial divide. Charles Murray is a libertarian and his previous books include "Losing Ground" and "The Bell Curve," a rather controversial book about IQ as a determinant of many socioeconomic outcomes, and he joins us today. Welcome to the program.

CHARLES MURRAY: Good afternoon.

SIEGEL: First, since we Americans love to consider ourselves middle class, whether we're factory workers or neurosurgeons, how big do you figure the new upper class is and how big is the new lower class?

MURRAY: Well, if you talk about the upper middle class, which is a subset of the new upper class, you're talking about 20 percent of the white adult population. And the white working class these days represents about 30 percent of the white adult population.

SIEGEL: And they are separated, both geographically and also culturally?

MURRAY: Both of those. There has developed over the last 50 years distinctive tastes and preferences among people who share high levels of education and also are affluent. This involves everything from the way they raise their children to the foods they eat, the way they take care of their bodies, the cars they drive, you name it.

In addition to that, there has been an increasing spatial separation so that you have zip codes that have levels of affluence and education that are so much higher than the rest of the population that they constitute a different kind of world. And these, in turn, form clusters.

SIEGEL: One surprise that emerges from your data is that the new upper class, people who might often be ridiculed as latte liberals, contemptuous of traditional values are, in fact, the people who are getting and staying married more, the people who continue to go to church or synagogue more. They work more hours. They are exemplifiers of traditional American values.

MURRAY: It's strange because we think of the upper middle class, for example, as being secular, that they've fallen away from religion. Well, it turns out that the upper middle class goes to church more often and feels a much stronger affiliation with their religion than the white working class.

SIEGEL: You feel this is a dangerous situation that the white upper middle class - the educated middle class - is so separate from the bottom percent?

MURRAY: I think it's potentially very dangerous because, let's face it, the people who run the country have enormous influence over the culture, the politics and the economics of the country. And, increasingly, they haven't a clue about how most of America lives. They have never experienced it. They don't watch the same movies. They don't watch the same television shows. And when that happens, you get some policies that are pretty far out of whack.

SIEGEL: I guess the question that I had in reading "Coming Apart" is truly how different this is, how different today is from the past. And it seems to me that, by contrasting today, which I think you describe pretty well, with 1960 or - in the preface, actually, 1963. It seems to me you've chosen not the way we used to be, but the way the country was at a high point of leveling, unifying experiences.

My father and all the other fathers had been in the Second World War. They'd experienced the Depression at one age or another. They'd come through the G.I. Bill. Nobody seemed to object to hugely high tax rate and it was a time which I would think was remarkably unified and, to my reading, provides perhaps a false baseline for how much worse things are today as previously in our history.

MURRAY: You can actually make an argument that even earlier in the century, there was even greater mixture of the different classes. And a lot of that was done by lodges. You know, the Elks and the Moose and you name it. There were lots and lots of these which took people in from all social classes and people were proud of that.

Also, you have the 1800s and Alexis de Tocqueville saying, you know, the funny thing about America is that the more opulent members of the society take great care to talk to the members of the lower classes every day and keep in close touch with them.

SIEGEL: I was thinking of - of, say, 1923. If that had been a baseline for where we are today, as opposed to 1963, huge immigrant-nativist differences, communities that were utterly apart, linguistically apart from one another. Catholics and Protestants divided on a basic thing like Prohibition. Urban tenement living as opposed to what was still a very large population of small farmers in the country. I'd have thought we'd say, well, back then, we were far more divided.

MURRAY: There's a way in which that was different in an important respect, which is almost all the people who were successful in 1923 had started out in the working class family or a middle class family. Very few of them were second or third generation affluent.

And so, when you got, for example, Eisenhower's Cabinet in 1952, it was called nine millionaires and a plumber in the popular press. And they were nine millionaires and a plumber, but all of those nine millionaires, I think with one exception, had grown up, you know, as farmers' sons or small merchants' sons and so forth.

SIEGEL: But, you know, I took note of what you wrote about Eisenhower's Cabinet. You said all but two had not been born into affluent families. So today, not including the small business administrator who was given a new chair last week, there are 15 Cabinet secretaries. By another measure, there are four women, two Asians, one black, two Latinos. One could say this is a group, by today's measure, who are immeasurably more diverse than Eisenhower's Cabinet secretaries were.

MURRAY: Oh, it's definitely more...

SIEGEL: Gender and ethnic?

MURRAY: ...gender and ethnically diverse, but not socioeconomically.

SIEGEL: What should the attitude, as you see it, of the new upper class be toward the new lower class? I understand you better? Should it be, I have some lessons to teach you? What's the stance between one and the other?

MURRAY: The new upper class should drop its non-judgmentalism. I want the new upper class to start preaching what it practices. They are getting married and staying married in large numbers. They work like crazy, long hours. They even do better going to church than lots of the rest of America. Why not just say, these are not just choices we have made for ourselves. These are rich, rewarding ways of living.

SIEGEL: I just want to ask you before you go about the decision to write about white America. It would be akin, one could say, to saying, I'm going to write about Britain, but I'm not going to talk about the class system at all. Was this entirely a matter of trying to pre-but people who would say, well, he's talking about blacks? Or were you, in fact, saying, after "The Bell Curve," maybe I'd better not write about blacks. People will receive what I write so unfavorably, I'll just talk about white people.

MURRAY: I wanted to limit it to whites to concentrate the minds of my readers. When we talk about a lot of the social problems that are in the book, the reflexive response is, oh, well, you know, those problems are really a lot worse in the black community or in the Latino community than in the white community.

And, this way, I can say throughout the book, just put that all out of your minds. These are problems in the white community. However, in the penultimate chapter of the book, I say, suppose we put everybody in the mix. What do these trend lines look like?

SIEGEL: You say it's the same thing?

MURRAY: Guess what, folks? It looks just the same.

SIEGEL: Well, Charles Murray, thank you very much for talking with us.

MURRAY: It's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Charles Murray is the author of "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010."


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