February 26, 2012

In 1924, the sociologist couple Robert and Helen Lynd arrived in a small Midwestern city they called Middletown (it was Muncie, Ind.) to study and survey the place. Their classic 550-page “Middletown” described a community starkly split between a “working class” (factory workers and laborers totaling 71 percent of the population) and a “business class” (owners, managers and professionals comprising 29 percent). This division, the Lynds wrote, was Middletown’s “outstanding cleavage” and influenced work, marriage, religion, leisure — almost everything.

The Lynds now have a provocative successor: Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, whose new book — “Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010” — argues that today’s class separations threaten America’s very nature. On the one hand is a growing lower class characterized by insecure work, unstable families and more crime. On the other is a highly educated elite that dominates our commercial, political and nonprofit institutions but is increasingly isolated from the rest of America, particularly the lower class.

Note: Murray is describing white America. In his main analysis, he omitted Latinos and African-Americans to debunk the notion that the country’s serious social problems are just the result of immigration or the stubborn legacy of slavery and racism. Murray finds America’s evolving class structure threatening in two ways. First, it’s bad for the people involved. The lower class is less capable of caring for itself. The powerful elite is disconnected. Second, the new classes subvert social cohesion by weakening shared values that Murray calls America’s “founding virtues” — industriousness, commitment to marriage, honesty and religion.

Unlike the Lynds, Murray did not embed himself in a representative city. Instead, he constructed artificial communities — one of the upper-middle class, the other of the working class — based on existing social and economic surveys (far more extensive than in the Lynds’ day). Then he recorded how behaviors — again, using surveys — have changed since 1960. People in his upper-middle-class community had to be college graduates and hold managerial or professional jobs. Those in the working-class community have no more than a high-school diploma and work in blue-collar or low-paying jobs.

Plenty has changed since 1960, especially in the blue-collar world. “Marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes,” writes Murray. Among those 30 to 49 in the blue-collar community, 84 percent were married in 1960 and only 48 percent in 2010. In 1962, 96 percent of children were living with both biological parents; by 2004, the proportion was 37 percent. Meanwhile, the share of households with someone working at least 40 hours a week dropped from 81 percent in 1960 to 60 percent in 2008.

Jobs and marriages are more stable for the better educated. But they live in an “upper-middle-class bubble,” says Murray. The danger is that “the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation . . . make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.”

Up to a point, Murray’s analysis rings true. “Unwed Mothers Now a Majority Before Age of 30,” The New York Times headlined its lead story the other day, confirming that out-of-wedlock births are concentrated among women without college degrees. It cannot be a good thing that fathers are becoming optional. Men’s work ethic and self-respect erode. Sure, many marriages are tumultuous and some destructive; but they generally stabilize society and benefit children.

Similarly, the political and social consequences of class stratification seem apparent. The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are not just a reaction to the Great Recession. They also reflect a resentment against “elites” that seem too sheltered and too controlling.

What’s missing in Murray’s account is history. He acknowledges that class differences are not new but asserts that today’s “degree of separation” is more exaggerated than “anything that the nation has ever known.” Dubious. Read “Middletown”: The contrasts between the “business” and “working” classes seem as great, if not greater. Our past includes not just class differences but social hatreds: whites against blacks; ethnic groups against each other; union members against business owners. By comparison, today’s tensions are mild.

America’s distinctive beliefs and values are fading, says Murray. Maybe. But our history is that the bedrock values — the belief in freedom, faith in the individual, self-reliance, a moralism rooted in religion — endure against all odds. They’ve survived depressions, waves of immigration, wars and political scandals.

There is such a thing as the American character and, though not immutable, it is durable. In 2011, only 36 percent of Americans believed that “success in life is determined by outside forces,” reports the Pew Global Attitudes survey. In France and Germany, the responses were 57 and 72 percent, respectively. America is different, even exceptional, and it is likely to stay that way.