Trouble in Fishtown

© 2016 R McKnight

© 2016 R McKnight


Update: A new upper-class has emerged, one that’s completely disconnected from the average white American and American culture at large, says Charles Murray. Are you disconnected? You can take Charles ’s “How Thick is Your Bubble?” test here

I'VE BEEN READING A FASCINATING BOOKComing Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. Murray is a sociologist at the American Enterprise Institute, a superb, even gripping writer. It is relevant reading for business leaders and, more importantly, any parent who is concerned about the world their children will inherit. I recommend it heartily. So does David Brooks, New York Times columnist who says on the book's cover, "I'll be shocked if there's another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society."

Murray focuses on "white America" because he does not wish to confound his analysis of class with race and wishes to point out how radically changed the country is in the past 50-years for the about-to-vanish white majority.

The book is about the growing class division between affluent whites (Murray calls them the new upper class) and working class whites in the U.S. (Murray calls them the new lower class). 

Specifically, it is the story of the growing disparity (the "coming apart") between the bottom 30% and the top 20% (economically) of white Americans. Of this, Murray says, "I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America."

Among other things, reading it helps me understand more deeply what this presidential election is all about; those in the bottom 30% overwhelmingly support Donald Trump.

Everyone has heard the phrase, "the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer." This is truer than it's ever been and perhaps it’s obvious, but reading Murray about the implications of the fact is illuminating—and troubling.

A house on the Main Line © 2016 Richard McKnight

A house on the Main Line © 2016 Richard McKnight

Murray tells the story of the increasing differentiation of the two populations spanning a period of 50-years (1960-2010). He uses statistics to tell the following story, each piece of which is debatable, but Murray is convincing on each point:

Everyone wants to be happy. The Founding Fathers made the bet that when we live in accord with certain values—Murray calls them "civic virtues"—the biggest number of Americans stand the greatest chance of being happy. Some Americans are living in accord with these values: the people at the top who are benefitting most from our economic system. On the other hand, those at the bottom have, to an exponentially increasing degree, strayed away from these virtues.

Those virtues are:

Industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity.


Industriousness = hard work

Honesty = you are a good neighbor, reliable; you don't go to jail

Marriage = you are legally married and raise your children in a two-parent family 

Religiosity = you not only believe, you also regularly congregate with fellow believers

Add up the positive effects of these virtues, Murray says, and you get lives that pay off personally and socially: in income, good parenting, safe communities, and social contribution. The result is a pleasant way of life and growing prosperity.

His stats are sound. The children produced by those who live by these virtues enjoy every advantage, go to the best schools, and the interbreeding that results from the segregation guarantees that intelligence in that group increases over time. These communities have nearly full employment and almost no crime.

Those who do not live by these values get lower-level jobs, have difficulty finding and holding a job, and if unemployed, take longer than the others in getting work or don't look at all. The people at the bottom drop out of school far more often, are incarcerated far more often, and have far more problems with drugs.

In the large swaths of America where this is so, you find a progressively accelerating, vicious cycle of impoverishment, poor parenting, crime, and civic decay: in places like Fishtown, a Philadelphia neighborhood which is predominantly working-class white.

In places like Fishtown, only half the adults are married (in contrast to nearly 90% on Philly's Main Line) and 22% of children in Fishtown are living in a home with only one adult as the head of the family. (9% on the Main Line.) In Fishtown, 30% of men are out of the labor force, i.e., not employed and not looking for employment. This compares to 4.9% as the national average. In Fishtown, out of wedlock births are nearing 30%. Thus, the quality of life in Fishtown—if you discount the recent beneficial effects of gentrification—is getting worse and worse for the new white lower class.

If you live in such a neighborhood, your psychological outlook is apt to be what I’ve called the Victim mode: poor me, ain’t it awful, the world is against me. You tend to think it’s fruitless to try to improve your lot. You give up. You look to a demagogue for salvation. Hence, in my view, the appeal of Donald J. Trump.

Bleeding heart liberals (my tendency) say the antidote is economic and structural: change the circumstances of the working class so they have greater advantage. Murray, a Libertarian, says "Not so fast." The problems will yield more quickly to character change, he says, than change in circumstances. This means, among other things, getting the residents of places like Fishtown to marry, then have kids, not the other way around, and to somehow get those unemployed men to feel enough shame to get to work. Murray does not let the upper class off the hook entirely (he chides them for class snobbery and isolation), but it is clear that they are exemplars of his civic virtues.

A liberal would argue for structural change: better pre-school education, for example, better high school education so those otherwise eligible workers in Fishtown could get employment in a new economy, and so forth. This is why next up in my reading list is Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I'll write a blog comparing the two when I finish it.

Putnam's book is a New York Times bestseller and has been described as must read by The New Yorker. I noticed that the blurb describing this book says it explains "why fewer Americans today have the opportunity for upward mobility." By subtitle alone, this portrays the new lower class as victims. 

Stay tuned.

The Economist reviewed the Murray book here.

The WSJ reviewed the Murray book here.