Commentary: The Decline of the Working Class and the New Evangelization

Charles Murray’s new study of white America, Coming Apart, offers a chance for the Church to find new avenues for spreading the Gospel.

Charles Murray
Charles Murray (photo: American Enterprise Institute)

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve yesterday released its Survey of Consumer Finances, a report that found that the median U.S. family income plunged about 40% over the past three years.

The Fed’s data also confirm that the incomes of affluent Americans have fallen rapidly, reducing income inequalities somewhat.

That news is unlikely to silence the Occupy Wall Street movement and others who allege that disparities in wealth are the result of the exploitative practices of the nation’s top banks and corporations.

Meanwhile, Charles Murray, the libertarian sociologist, offers a different take on the haves and have-nots in his new bestseller Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. It examines the destructive social patterns associated with the decline of the working class, including lower rates of marriage, civic engagement and religious observance.

[UPDATE Filed June 13: In his address today at the U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting in  Atlanta, John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, cited Murray's findings.

"Murray reports that among white working class Americans the number of people who profess no religion or attend a worship service no more than once a year has gone up from 38% to 59% (21 points) in the last 40 years. During that same period the number of marriages among working class whites has gone from 84% to 48%.The number of births out of wedlock among the same group rose from 6% to 44%.Murray argues that the civic culture that defined the American way of life has unraveled over this period," stated Garvey during an address entitled, Religious Freedom and the Love of God.]

Murray’s previous groundbreaking works, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980 (1984), and The Bell Curve (1994) fueled controversy as they addressed related social themes.

But the troubling realities that surface in his fascinating new book raise questions about whether and how the class divide can be effectively bridged. Murray first sounded the alarm about  this development  two decades ago. Today, the top 1% command about a quarter of the national income.

His research highlights significant challenges for the New Evangelization. If the Church aims to preach the Gospel and foster a desire to know God and conform to his loving will, catechists must accommodate the fact that a rising number of adult Americans, including cradle Catholics, have set themselves apart from the mainstream and won’t be easy to reach.

Coming Apart sketches a portrait of two parallel worlds functioning at opposing ends of the spectrum — the top 20% and the lower 30%. The author deals only with social research studying white Americans, in an effort to counter past criticism of some of his research as ignoring the impact of racism on income disparities.

Belmont is the name of his mythical affluent world, a composite of various characteristics that typify the educated elite. The tattered working-class town, on the other hand, is dubbed “Fishtown,” also a composite of qualities likely to be found in such communities across the nation.

Murray offers a wealth of data to counter the heated rhetoric of class warfare and offers a surprisingly positive portrait of Belmont, where the top 20% includes investment bankers — but also college professors, business managers and professionals.

The author doesn’t dispute the venality of some in the educated elite, but he also notes that in 2010 Belmont boasted high rates of marriage, long work hours and engagement with organized religion. About 7% of Belmont’s children are born out of wedlock.

In Fishtown, non-marital births stand at 45%, and unemployment and incarceration rates have risen sharply. Further, the drift away from a marriage culture signals a broader erosion of contact with other civil institutions, from churches to voluntary groups like the Boy Scouts and the PTA.

In the early 1960s, Fishtown and Belmont shared similar values and social patterns. Non-marital births were at about 3% and work hours were roughly equivalent with 98% of men, ages 30-50, employed.


What Happened?

What happened to Fishtown?

Murray is an MIT-trained political scientist; he is not a Catholic or a moral theologian. But the data marshaled for this book suggest that the social turmoil unleashed in the 1960s played a major role in Fishtown’s declining prospects, weakening familial bonds and leaving young adults adrift.

In contrast, Belmont briefly faltered — divorce rates rose for a period after the ’60s, but then declined.

In decades past, Fishtown residents had a strong shot at moving into the middle class. That changed as an increasing proportion of the town turned away from what Murray calls the founding virtues of America: religious faith, industriousness, marriage and community.

Today, Fishtown’s high school graduates are unlikely to finish college or to marry, while the vast majority of Belmont’s children will earn a college degree and marry a college graduate.

Murray notes that the residents of Belmont don’t always acknowledge their relatively conservative social practices. They may espouse socially liberal views and adopt a form of “nonjudgmentalism” regarding the destructive social practices of Fishtown. Yet, statistically, they have low divorce rates and carefully supervise their children, increasing the likelihood that the family’s success will be sustained by the next generation.

It’s hard to reconcile Murray’s portrait of Belmont with the reptilian fat cats that serve as placeholders for America’s elite in political rhetoric and mass entertainment.

No surprise that many sociologists and economists insist that Murray is “blaming the victim” when he says that an implosion of moral values fueled the downward trend in communities like Fishtown. Critics assert that the author ignores the impact of stagnant wages, weak trade unions and inequitable domestic polices.

Other experts identify globalization as the engine of social and economic destruction for the working class, arguing that illegal immigration and cheap labor markets abroad undermined the power of the bottom 20% to negotiate better wages.

Murray also adds another element to the mix: In a world economy that rewards strong cognitive ability, individuals with high IQs are more likely to come out ahead. Today they are also more likely to marry spouses with similar cognitive strengths, thus increasing the gap between the top performers and the bottom rung of society.

He shows that these differences have resulted in the creation of high-functioning communities that have little or no contact with ordinary Americans and mass entertainment. His book offers cultural tests designed to establish whether the test taker resides in one of the nation’s elite zip codes.

But even if college graduates and professionals with advanced degrees are more likely to gain traction in this economy, Murray and other sociologists also cite reams of data showing that children raised in working class homes with both biological parents are happier and more successful than their peers who grow up in non-traditional households.

In other words, it’s past time for the good residents of Belmont to retire their “nonjudgmentalism” regarding cohabitation and non-marital births.


We Must Reach Out

Murray’s portrait of two starkly different towns could lead Catholics in the United States to develop more effective ways to advance the New Evangelization: While Belmont’s residents might need to move out from their bubble, the fading communities of the working class require a different approach.

If lapsed young Catholics in Fishtown don’t present themselves for Pre-Cana instruction before marriage (or any other milestone that once provided an opportunity to reconnect with a cradle faith), they may never come to the attention of the local parish. The Church has always reached out to people on the margins, and now we have to build on past efforts to draw them back into the heart of the Church.

Murray also calls on his readers — whom he assumes reside in Belmont — to venture beyond their zip codes. Given what the author has told us about zip code-based cultural literacy, you realize that Catholic educators who take their cues from the educated elite will have to adapt when they travel further afield.   Murray, for his part, decided to move his family to a small town where they became friends with neighbors from various backgrounds and educational levels.

For some Catholics in the United States, parish life already provides opportunities for the kind of engagement the author proposes. But others may ask themselves whether the demands of work and family life have limited their contact with the world, including those drifting alone.

Coming Apart helps to explain how social inequalities became entrenched, and that can help us tackle the problems that keep Fishtown and Belmont far apart. But the author’s insights can assist the work of the New Evangelization, making our Church a beacon for a divided nation searching for a path out of the storm.