Values Inequality

W. BRADFORD WILCOX

Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart demolishes the idea that the white working class remains the guardian of core American values like religious faith, hard work and marriage.

Today the denizens of upscale communities like McLean, Va., New Canaan, Conn., and Palo Alto, Calif., according to Charles Murray in "Coming Apart," are now much more likely than their fellow citizens to embrace these core American values. In studying, as his subtitle has it, "the state of white America, 1960-2010," Mr. Murray turns on its head the conservative belief that bicoastal elites are dissolute and ordinary Americans are virtuous.

Focusing on whites to avoid conflating race with class, Mr. Murray contends instead that a large swath of white America — poor and working-class whites, who make up approximately 30% of the white population — is turning away from the core values that have sustained the American experiment. At the same time, the top 20% of the white population has quietly been recovering its cultural moorings after a flirtation with the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, argues Mr. Murray in his elegiac book, the greatest source of inequality in America now is not economic; it is cultural.

He is particularly concerned with the ways in which working-class whites are losing touch with what he calls the four "founding virtues" — industriousness, honesty (including abiding by the law), marriage and religion, all of which have played a vital role in the life of the republic.

Consider what has happened with marriage. The destructive family revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s has gradually eased — at least in the nation's most privileged precincts. In the past 20 years, divorce rates have come down, marital quality (self-reported happiness in marriage) has risen and nonmarital childbearing (out-of-wedlock births) is a rare occurrence among the white upper class. Marriage is not losing ground in America's best neighborhoods.

But it's a very different story in blue-collar America. Since the 1980s, divorce rates have risen, marital quality has fallen and nonmarital childbearing is skyrocketing among the white lower class. Less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage, compared with approximately 40% of white women with just a high-school diploma. The bottom line is that a growing marriage divide now runs through the heart of white America.

Mr. Murray tells similar stories about crime, religion and work. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the white upper class is now much more likely to be found in church on any given Sunday than the white working class? Or that, just before the recession struck, white men in the 30-49 age bracket with a high-school diploma were about four times more likely to have simply stopped looking for work, compared with their college-educated peers? By Mr. Murray's account, faith and industriousness are in increasingly short supply among working-class whites.


Mr. Murray's sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness. And his book shows that many of these findings are also applicable to poor and working-class African Americans and Latinos. Mr. Murray notes that "family, vocation, faith, and community" have a "direct and strong relationship to self-reported happiness." Not surprisingly, he shows that since the 1970s happiness has plummeted in working-class and poor communities — but not in affluent communities.

He is particularly concerned with the ways in which working-class whites are losing touch with what he calls the four "founding virtues" — industriousness, honesty (including abiding by the law), marriage and religion, all of which have played a vital role in the life of the republic.

The economic and political success of the American experiment has depended in large part on the health of these founding virtues. Businesses cannot flourish if ordinary workers are not industrious. The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down. As James Madison wrote: "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea."

There are at least two ways to close this cultural divide and renew the cultural foundations of the American experiment. First, policy makers and business leaders need to shore up the economic foundations of working- and middle-class life. Globalization has paid huge dividends for the upper class, but it has undercut the earnings and job security of men (and their families) lower down the social ladder. Public policies designed to strengthen the educational opportunities (e.g., better vocational programs) and economic security (portable health-care plans) of ordinary Americans could help in renewing the economic foundations of the nation's virtues.

Second, as Mr. Murray notes, the members of the upper class must abandon the modern horror of being thought "judgmental"; instead, he says, they should "preach what they practice." This does not mean turning the clock back to the 1950s or the Victorian age. It just means that the elites who control the heights of government, education, business and the popular culture could do a lot more to encourage the core American values that they themselves now live by.

Here the creative cultural class that dominates New York and Southern California bears a special responsibility. One can imagine producers chortling at the suggestion, but they should consider making movies, TV shows and music that support, rather than corrode, the kind of culture that these elites seek to pass on to their own children.

After all, the price of not bridging the cultural divide is to accept an America where the powerful and the privileged continue to (discreetly) embrace the values and the institutions that make possible the American way of life and where everyone else increasingly finds that way of life out of reach. It is a scenario where the end of the American experiment in ordered liberty would surely not be far behind.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

W. Bradford Wilcox. "Values Inequality." The Wall Street Journal (January 31, 2012).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

W. Bradford Wilcox is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. Prior to coming to the University of Virginia, he held research fellowships at Princeton University, Yale University and the Brookings Institution. Mr. Wilcox's research focuses on the influence of religious belief and practice on marriage, cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood. His first book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (University of Chicago Press, 2004) examines the ways in which the religious beliefs and practices of American Protestant men influence their approach to parenting, household labor, and marriage.

Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Mr. Wilcox is now researching the effect that religion has on relationships among low-income parents in urban America. Professor Wilcox has received the following two awards from the American Sociological Association Religion Section for his research: the Best Graduate Paper Award and the Best Article Award (with Brian Steensland et al.). His research has also been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, CBS News, and numerous NPR stations. Professor Wilcox teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in statistics, family, and religion. Bradford Wilcox is a member of CERC's advisory board.

Copyright © 2012 Wall Street Journal




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