American Caste

Kay S. Hymowitz, City Journal, Spring 2012.


When Charles Murray’s best-selling Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 appeared a few months ago, the book’s fictional working-class neighborhood, Fishtown, became one more battleground in America’s 50-year-old culture war. Fishtown was representative, Murray argued, of a new white underclass in America—one produced by cultural decline, especially the collapse of marriage. Critics objected that the real source of misery in the nation’s Fishtowns wasn’t a lack of marriages; it was the extinction of manufacturing jobs. The disagreement was familiar to culture-war veterans: conservatives versus liberals, family breakdown versus dearth of good jobs, culture versus economics, David Brooks versus Paul Krugman.

Murray might have done more to acknowledge that globalization, technology, and the knowledge economy have wrenchingly changed the working-class world. Still, Coming Apart is correct: you can’t grasp what’s happening at the lower end of the income scale without talking about family breakdown. In fact, the single-mother revolution, as I’ll call it, takes us a long way toward understanding the socioeconomic problems on everyone’s mind these days: poverty, inequality, and the inability of those at the bottom to move up.

City Journal