Mero Moment: The Widening Cultural Gap

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Americans back in 1830 that “[t]he more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to them, they speak to them every day.”

Renowned sociologist Charles Murray recently writes in The Wall Street Journal that “Americans love to see themselves this way. But there’s a problem: It’s not true anymore, and it’s been progressively less true since the 1960s.”

He adds, “Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture [what we used to call “the American way of life”] has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by a withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.”

Murray uses a hypothetical situation to describe what he means. He creates the fictional community of Belmont to house the white upper crust of society and another fictional community, Fishtown, to describe where the white lower classes live. He writes that back in 1960 both communities cherished marriage. The marriage rate among the white upper class of Belmont was 94 percent. In Fishtown, the marriage rate was an astounding 84 percent. By the mid-1980s, marriages in Belmont dropped 11 points to 83 percent but, even more dramatically, the marriage rate among whites in Fishtown fell to 48 percent. The marriage gap between wealthy whites and poor whites increased from 10 points to 35 points.

The percentage of children born to unmarried white women shows the same divergence. In 1960, just 2 percent of all white births were nonmarital. By 1970, when the education of mothers was first recorded as a fertility factor, 6 percent of births to white women with no more than a high-school education were out of wedlock. By 2008, that number was 44 percent. Among highly-educated women the number was less than 6 percent – a one percent change since 1970.

Murray explains, “It’s not that white working class males can no longer make a ‘family wage’ that enables them to marry. … It’s not that a bad job market led discouraged men to drop out of the labor force.” Murray blames the welfare state. He writes, “Changes in social policy during the 1960s made it economically more feasible to have children without having a husband if you were a woman or to get along without a job if you were a man; safer to commit crimes without suffering consequences; and easier to let government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of.”

Murray concludes, “The only thing that can make a difference is the recognition among Americans of all classes that a problem of cultural inequality exists and that something has to be done about it. That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations … the ‘something’ that I have in mind … is to drop the condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms.”

We can see what Murray describes all around us, not the least of which was the recent debate over sex education. A failing culture defaults to dysfunction to not offend anyone when, actually, the real offense is in not doing the right things for the right reasons.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.