Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has no doubt inspired its fair share of buzz since its release earlier this year. The book explores the formation of class divisions in America through a study of demographic trends in the White community. For those who have yet to read it, I offer a short summary and some preliminary thoughts.
The book is divided into two main parts that address two sizable chunks of the population, elite White folks and lower-income White folks. You can skip Part I if you’ve read Bobos in Paradise or any number of articles by New York Times columnist David Brooks. This first half basically talks about the rise of the meritocrats, creative class, and latte towns. Murray’s contribution here is documenting the rise of “SuperZips,” clusters of highly educated, influential folks in various pockets (including but not limited to people who watch Portlandia and their parents, people featured in Stuff White People Like, etc.).
Part II documents how distinct the trends are regarding taste, behavior, educational attainment, employment, income, religious service attendance, marriage, etc. between elite White folks and their lower-income counterparts. It’s mostly descriptive statistics, but the story still comes through. It’s rather compelling, seeing how not just elite education but also marriage, church attendance, and perks such as holding a job with health benefits are increasingly becoming part of the cultural capital toolkit.
Some raw reactions to Coming Apart:
1. This book is painful to read in parts, which is not a huge surprise, knowing that Charles Murray co-authored The Bell Curve (the 1994 book that stirred controversy with its suggestion of a strong relationship between race and IQ). Murray focuses exclusively on the White community, but one detects a tone of cultural bias that carries over to some of his commentary on race and ethnicity. Still, Murray is better at talking about White people than people of color, so I’d prefer he write this book rather than The Bell Curve II.
2. For all of its painfulness, the book raises some compelling and insightful points on the “White flight” of White elites from being in close proximity and community with poor and working-class White folks. Murray raises fascinating questions about what happens when socioeconomic integration among Whites disintegrates.
3. Murray is smart in sticking to descriptives versus causes. He stumbles when he tries to use his findings to prove that class trumps race in affecting the availability of opportunity in America (someone get this guy a handout on intersectionality).
4. Religion and church are all over this book, mainly as an outcome but also as an implied cause for some of the breakdown (a big worry since religious congregations are the country’s top source of social capital according to Harvard scholar Robert Putnam). Ross Douthat has been blogging about this. It’s making me wonder about the role of multiracial churches in different socioeconomic contexts, both the possibilities and limitations of them. It also makes me think about the role of ethnic-specific ministry as a source of social capital, if it can encourage socioeconomic integration.
5. A big theme of my work is the intersection between structure and culture — that is, how broad-scale structural conditions affect people’s perceptions of what is normal and expected, and over time the amalgamation of the two as they influence one another in a feedback loop.
6. Virtue doesn’t happen in a vacuum; certain groups don’t just happen to work hard or randomly want to attend college — there are structural and socioeconomic conditions that undergird people’s assumptions of what’s normal, and over time these conditions reproduce, further contributing to people’s sense of what’s normal and expected of them. Murray makes me think about how this plays out for White people across social class. For instance, in his review of Coming Apart, Bradford Wilcox notes how globalization has undercut job security, which among other things makes it harder for families to stay together. I also have an upcoming article on how most students recognize the value of a college education, but East Asian Americans are able to access information and resources via ethnic economies and social capital networks that help them turn aspirations into educational gains. (I don’t mean to convey that any social class or people group has a monopoly on virtue, hard work, and principled values, but rather that social class and structural conditions tend to enable certain people in turning aspirations and desire into concrete gains, and vice-versa.)
7. Elite, “meritocratic” education is all over Murray’s book, both as a cause and outcome. It’s hard to go home again, and elite college grads tend to flock to cities and affluent suburbs, meaning that they’re less likely to invest in the communities they once called home. Fewer contemporary counterparts of J. Irwin Miller go back to places like Columbus, Indiana.
8. All of this makes me think of my experience of growing up in and coming back to Ohio. (I spent two years teaching at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, before moving to the University of Maryland last year.) It causes me to ponder the contrast between living in the affluent suburbs versus a rural area, the experience of going to church with people with whom I had very little in common other than a shared faith and, in some cases, an affiliation with the university. It wasn’t easy trying to establish myself in a rural setting, but I look back on it as one of my most valuable experiences, being in a multi-generational community with people whose political affiliations, life experiences, etc. were so different from my own. That type of experience is a lot harder to opt into when you have all of the choices in the world.
All that to say, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart is a somewhat painful read but also pretty thought provoking.
Author’s Note: Two additional links may interest readers, Nell Irwin Painter on Murray’s lack of attention towards the complex history of White poverty and Stephen Colbert’s interview with Murray. This article was adapted from a post that originally appeared at Patheos.com.
FECKLESS FRONTRUNNERS: GOP presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the recent Republican debate in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Newscom)
Newt Gingrich thinks poor kids should probably learn to be janitors and that they should definitely eschew any morsel purchased by their parents with food stamps.
Mitt Romney does not lose any sleep over the “very poor.” His priority are the middle-class folks who make up the “heart of America.”
The problem with the rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners is that it distracts from the true question — what will we do about poverty and hunger?
In his specious statements about food stamps (which benefit the working poor as well as those on welfare), Gingrich baits race by declaring the first African American president of the United States the “Food Stamp President.” Oh, loquacious lobbyist who would be Debater-in-Chief, this does not count as an argument, but rather, as an ad hominem attack.
Mitt Romney, feeling his oats after his win in Florida, dissed the downtrodden so as to affirm his solidarity with the middle class. Oh, compassionate corporate man who would be Mormon-in-Chief, this statement amounts to baffling babble. Even low-income Republicans think that Republicans in Congress don’t do enough to help the poor.
Perhaps Mitt and Newt should take a page from a Republican president past.
No, not Ronald Reagan, who was also an expert at proffering dubious depictions of the poor — remember the welfare queen?
I’m talking about Richard Nixon.
Surprised? The summarily dismissed, yet politically complex President Nixon advanced domestic policies benefiting — OMG — the poor!
Nixon delivered an impassioned speech in 1969 touting an end to hunger by — GASP — increasing funding for food stamps.
Nixon propounded a Family Assistance Plan in 1971 that would shore up the safety net by — HOLY SOCIALISM, BATMAN! — providing a guaranteed minimum income.
Perhaps Gingrich’s gaffe would be just another laughable line during a contentious campaign if there were not so many politicians like him willing to punish the poor by cutting food stamps, limiting their use, and imposing drug tests prior to giving needed help.
Perhaps Romney’s remark could be forgiven as an oversight if he hadn’t already articulated the same thing in earlier appearances, indicating that his policies will not reflect the sentiment that we are our brother’s keeper after all.
In a country where 16 million children live in households that are food insecure and 15 percent of Americans receive food aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the reductionist rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners should give us pause. Caring for the poor is not a partisan issue. Feeding the hungry is a co-responsibility of caring communities, from the statehouse to the church house.
Don’t fall for the “food stamp” red herring or the “heart of America” trope.
SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.
The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.
More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.
Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.
When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?
Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta who preached a series on greed and the Great Recession, argues that churches should converse about issues that grip the nation. Occupy Wall Street meets that standard.
The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.
The latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau about poverty are heartbreaking. How is it possible that, in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, 1 out of 6 people are living below the poverty line? Many of us will never have to know what it feels like to be poor (thank God). But when so many people in our cities and neighborhoods are in the grips of poverty (especially blacks, Latinos, and children), we need to pay attention and take it personally.
I remember being in a tight financial situation in college. I was a sophomore renting a room from a family in my church. I grew up poor and was the first in my family to go to college. Fortunately, the family I lived with during my freshman year shared my precarious situation with their friends before they moved. They knew that my chances of finishing college were slim without additional help. I was always struggling to work, carry a full class load, and eat. One anonymous person made a deep impression on me through her unexpected generosity. Every few weeks, I would randomly receive a check from this person with a note that said, “God told me to send this to you.” The checks usually came when I was at my lowest point. When they came, I cried out of sheer joy and relief. Years later when I inquired about my anonymous benefactor, I discovered that she was a single, middle-aged woman living on a fixed income. At first I felt guilty — this woman who had very little sacrificed to support someone she didn’t even know — but then I felt a sense of awe. This woman gave out of her scarcity in a way that challenged my ideas about wealth, prosperity, and poverty. Ever since, I have followed her example in helping others.
As I have matured in my understanding of the Bible, I have noticed that God rarely extols a person simply because of his or her wealth. For wealth to be meaningful, wisdom has to be nearby. If not, we can end up like many celebrities and lottery winners: miserable. Solomon demonstrated this when God gave him a choice between wisdom and riches. He chose wisdom, but God blessed him with both. And his later life is a cautionary tale on the connection between wealth and pride. Godly wisdom is the sure sign of God’s blessings. We have it backward, which is why we forget that God can give His wisdom to anyone — even those we consider poor.
God’s Concern for the Poor
According to the new census report, 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty, the largest on record dating back to 1959 when the census began tracking poverty. This has considerable political implications considering the uptick in the unemployment rate and the debt ceiling legislation that just passed.
Defining poverty is not an exact science. For instance, by current standards, a white family of six would be considered poor even though they may make $50,000 a year combined, own their home, and live frugally. Yet the face of poverty in the U.S. media is usually a black single mother with children. Politics and election cycles often decide how the media will see poverty.
In his book Just Generosity, theologian Ron Sider makes it clear that there is room in God’s economy for the less fortunate. He points us to the Old Testament, where Yahweh charges the Israelites to remember where they came from and care for those who need help within their community. Once they settled in Canaan, the concept of gleaning (leaving leftover crops for the poor) in Leviticus 19:9-10 and the Year of Canceling Debts in Deuteronomy 15: 1-6 applied to everyone. Jesus said he came to preach the good news to the poor. There are many other scriptures that support God’s concern as well.
The Widow’s Example
The crazy thing about wealth is that as we accumulate more of it, we typically find ourselves becoming ever more desperate to preserve it. We may not even be greedy or materialistic people. But the natural instinct is to get as much as we can, and then hold on to it. This is one reason why people with great wealth are rarely as happy as you’d expect.
One of the best antidotes to spiritual discontent is giving. And, paradoxically, it’s often those with the least who give the most. According to a variety of recent studies, lower-income Americans are the most charitable persons in our country. But our media would have us believe that the most generous people are the wealthy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful when a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg donates millions to education or a third-world country. But I’m even more encouraged by my high school students who took up a collection to help a classmate’s family with funeral expenses. Most of them come from impoverished communities. This is one reason why the story of the widow’s offering in Luke 21:1-4 should have relevance for us: the widow sacrifices exorbitantly while the rich hoard their wealth.
Those who don’t have a lot have recognized the simple wisdom that God loves a cheerful giver and that He truly provides. The anonymous woman who helped me get through college believed this. And today’s Christians, along with our current crop of politicians, should work harder to remember this as well.
In part two of this post, I’ll share some ways that we can learn from those who are living in poverty. Please stay tuned, and share your thoughts about poverty, wealth, and generosity in the comments section below.
Last night, President Obama concluded his Debt-ceiling speech by reminding the American people that “America … has always been a grand experiment in compromise.”
“As a democracy made up of every race and religion, where every belief and point of view is welcomed, we have put to the test time and again the proposition at the heart of our founding: that out of many, we are one,” he said.
But last week, in a phone conference with reporters, a group of Christian leaders who had met with the president earlier about the budget debate seemed to frame the issue as a matter of social justice for the poor, whom they suggested were being neglected in favor of the rich and middle class.
Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, said politicians in Washington have “twisted Matthew 25 to say, ‘Whatever you do for the forgotten middle class you do unto me.'” He said the group reminded the president that “we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network, affirmed Ramirez’s statement that Matthew 25 is not about the middle class.
“I reminded [President Obama] and all of us that the moral choices about the budget must be made in the context of over 2,000 verses of scripture on God’s concern for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the fatherless, that they be held harmless in the actions of government,” said Skinner.
“Washington is talking about almost everything except how these decisions affect the poor and vulnerable. The silence has been pretty deafening,” said John Carr, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But Galen Carey, Vice President of Government Relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, struck a more moderate note, saying they were pleased that the president “acknowledged that we face a fiscal crisis.”
“We need to get our fiscal house in order is one of the messages that we also delivered. We are not among those who want to kick the can down the road. We want our nation’s leaders to come together to fix the financial and fiscal problems which we face,” said Carey.
“The president indicated his commitment to do that, and, most importantly, to do that in a way which does not solve our problems on the backs of the poor,” he said.
Carey said the president “acknowledged the good will of the American people and of leaders in congress” in wanting to help those who are in need.
“Part of the challenge we discussed with the president is how we help the American people and our leaders to understand the human impact. …This is an issue of stewardship and we need to come together,” Carey said the group told the president.
“With families in particular, we are seeing the widening gap of poverty, including now many professional people,” explained Stephen J. Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America.
“In our communities, we are seeing teachers that are on food stamps, many of them ex-teachers. We’re seeing lawyers that are on food stamps. We’ re seeing young college graduates that cannot get jobs that are on food stamps, and poverty is taking a new face. The new face of poverty is being seen by someone in almost every family that we are speaking to on Sundays and meeting in our communities,” said Thurston.
UrbanFaith asked if the signatories risk alienating middle class voters by appearing to pit their concerns against those of the poor.
John Carr answered first, saying he may have contributed to this perception.
“I don’t think we’re pitting them against each other. What we’re asking is that the shared bipartisan focus on how this affects the middle class needs to also include, and, in fact, take a particular focus on the poor,” said Carr.
Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, said the 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor, poverty, widows, and orphans don’t mean that God doesn’t care about other people.
“It’s more that we don’t pay attention. We pay more attention to people that seem more important. Politics clearly pays more attention to the wealthy who have more influence than their one vote by far … and both parties want to lure the middle class,” said Wallis.
“The poor don’t vote very much and they don’t make donations, and so Washington D.C. just doesn’t pay attention to poor people,” he said, adding that their job as Christian leaders is to put those names and faces before the American people.
“Bishop Thurston reminded us of the new poor,” said Skinner. “He reminded us of middle class people who never expected to lose their jobs or to have their jobs go overseas. As a middle class person, I’d like to know that I’m in a country that if I get in that kind of straight, if I need food stamps, or if I need Medicaid or Medicare that it’s there.”
“Rather than seeing it as pitting middle class people against the poor, our conversation with the president was about the new poor and about the need to have a country defined by the way it treats all people who happen to find themselves in poverty.”
A study published today by the Pew Research Center indicates that median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic ones.
“These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009,” Pew’s report said.
What about you? Has this recession impacted you and/or your loved ones to a greater degree than previous ones? Are members of your family that never expected to receive government assistance receiving it now? How do we balance economic stewardship with God’s heart for the poor and vulnerable?