Coming Apart: The State of White America

The American working class isn’t clinging bitterly to guns and religion; it is letting go of everything that once distinguished it. That’s what American sociologist and recent wave-maker Charles Murray says in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, along with his essay “The New American Divide.” Despite the considerable evidence Murray offers to back up his thesis that the United States is dividing starkly into an upper and a lower class, it remains controversial (for obvious reasons).

Significantly, hostile reviews tend to nitpick, settle scores, or assign alternative sources of blame, focusing attention away from the big picture. Here is what Murray says the big picture looks like: Working class communities in the United States, far from clinging bitterly to guns and religion, are losing the Hollywood-mocked “religion and family values” culture far more decisively than middle class communities.

For example, marriage is becoming a lost art. In working class neighborhoods today, like Murray’s emblematic “Fishtown,” nonmarital births as of 2008 were around 43 to 48 per cent of all births. (In nearby middle class neighbourhoods like Murray’s example of “Belmont” they were around 6 to 8 percent.) When Belmonters offer opinions about the mass lone motherhood lifestyle, the fact is, they don’t know much about it from personal experience.

Also, many fewer Fishtown men the majority do not go to church:

In Fishtown the religiously disengaged became a majority amounting to 59%.

Strikingly, residents of nearby fashionable Belmont are more likely to go to church. Despite the widely publicized stereotype that the educated elite are materialist atheists, “Of the academics and scientists in the GSS sample, only 16 per cent said they had no religion.” This is easy to explain if we keep in mind that most scientists are not the academic elite, they are just scientists, and most of them identify with a specific religious group.

Overall, a drop in church attendance changes a community like Fishtown. Murray observes,

People who don’t go to church can be just as morally upright as people who do, but as a group they do not generate the social capital that the churchgoing population generates—it’s not their “fault” that social capital deteriorates, but that doesn’t make the deterioration any less real.

Murray doesn’t pin the blame on any explicit change, but we can reasonably finger mass unemployment in industries that used to offer a living wage. His proposed solutions aren’t much good, really. He wishes rich people would display their wealth less ostentatiously and that middle class people would move into poor neighbourhoods.

But none of that would change anything for people who simply do not have steady work capable of supporting a family.

He is, however, to be commended for refusing to sugar-coat the decline in working class American life as some kind of bold new innovation. And anyone who has a plan for doing something about the problems should start with his statistical analysis.

This article was originally published on under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit for more.



Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

  • Brian A. Cook

    I wish to warn you that Charles Murray is a known right-wing eugenicist.  Eugenics is not exclusively left-wing.   Murray has insisted that blacks are less intelligent.  What are the implications of such insistence?

    • WresNdad

      Try reading Murray at least- his writings have covered the “underclass” that is why his current book
      does NOT deal with anyone other than whites- to avoid the cries of racism. The Bell Curve was about the increasing importance of inherited ablility in a globalized world- the racial issues were a small section of the book. You can disagree with him but stop the left wing character assassination

      • Brian A. Cook

        Inherited ability, inherited intelligence?  Please tell me how is that not eugenic. 

        • theorist

          tbh, this is just a guess but I’m not even sure that Murray believes in eugenics totally and fully being that he is a libertarian.

          Anyways (1) not all eugenic policies are wrong and (2) eugenics means to breed people with “good” traits, while just noting that intelligence can be inherited implies nothing here or there.

          • Politically correct

            You mean there’s nature and nurture?  Doe this mean that some people are born smarter than others?  Even if that’s true, it is NOT PC to say these days, you know.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I do not see that births out of wedlock can be equated with “lone motherhood”

    I do not know the figures for the United States, but in France, in 2002,  according to the INED, births outside marriage, represented 44% of all births,  more than half (56%) of the births of first children, a third of the births of second children, and almost a quarter of the
    births of third children.

     However, 85% of children under 15 lived with both their parents. 

    Some 82% of children born outside marriage were recognized by their father within one month (compared with only a third of children born outside marriage in 1965 and 1970), and 92% were ultimately recognized.

     Lastly, only 15,000 children born in 2002 were expected to remain without paternal recognition, about as many as in the 1960s, when fewer than 6% of births took place outside marriage.

  • hombre111

    Interesting that the author points to one very “liberal” explanation.  With the loss of of decent jobs that can afford a good living, comes an accompanying moral degeneration. 

  • hombre111

    A sudden though that occurs to me about the crumbling white lower class is its similarity to the social collapse of the Native American population.   I have lived near three Indian reservations and which have experienced a decline resembling the decline now afflicting their white brothers and sisters.