Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

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by Charles Murray

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Charles Murray explores the formation of new American classes that are different in kind from anything we have ever known and focuses on whites to drive home the fact that the trends he describes do not break along lines of race or ethnicity.  See more details below


Charles Murray explores the formation of new American classes that are different in kind from anything we have ever known and focuses on whites to drive home the fact that the trends he describes do not break along lines of race or ethnicity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Comparing today’s class divisions to 1963 conditions, American Enterprise Institute scholar Murray depicts a pernicious erosion of common culture, restricting his analysis to non-Latino whites. Murray builds on research, including statistically based arguments linked to IQ, advanced in 1994’s controversial The Bell Curve, to describe the creation of a culturally distinct “new upper class” and its concomitant “new lower class” in places like Austin, Tex.; Manhattan; and Newton, Iowa—or the semifictional composite neighborhoods of Belmont, Mass., and Fishtown, Pa. Figures and trends analyzed here lend insight into undeniably massive changes in American society, while more anecdotal evidence (such as Murray’s memories of early 1960s Harvard) is open to subjective qualification. Of course, the picture of a snobby and self-selecting, interbreeding class of largely white, highly educated professionals living in “SuperZips” (the top zip codes in terms of advanced education and income) leans on well-worn images of neo-yuppiedom. While Murray insists he’s more interested in describing the “nature of the problem” than the causes, his argument would be stronger if it didn’t lay so much of the problem at the feet of a self-segregating “new upper class” and its rising incomes and distinct tastes and proclivities. Though it provides much to argue with, the book is a timely investigation into a worsening class divide no one can afford to ignore. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
American Enterprise Institute scholar Murray (Real Education, 2008, etc.) considers the chasm between the haves and the have-nots and how the welfare state has wrecked the "founding virtues." For the first half of the book, the author elaborates on some of the now-well-trod assertions about the "cognitive elite" first promulgated in his book The Bell Curve (1994): that the "new upper class" making up the "most successful 5 percent of adults ages 25 and older" enjoys the highest incomes and IQs, lives in pockets of "SuperZips," intermarries and ensures that their children constitute the applicant pool for the elite schools and essentially practice "lifestyle choices" that would be approved by the Founding Fathers. These include industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. With the elite isolating themselves in SuperZips and making most of the decisions for the rest of the country (they vote, for example), they have, however, little idea about the lives in the lower strata. Murray creates a detailed comparison between two communities: Belmont, a suburb of Boston inhabited by the aforementioned elite, and Fishtown, outside Philadelphia, where undereducated citizens are mired in low-skill jobs and blighted by a breakdown of the founding virtues--e.g., children out of wedlock and lack of industriousness by able-bodied men. With a plethora of graphs, the author shows that the same problems occurring in places like Fishtown are bleeding into areas like Belmont and contributing to a general erosion of "social capital," which reflects all of American society, black and white. ("The trends I describe exist independently of ethnic heritage," he writes, despite the use of an incendiary use of "white America" in the subtitle.) Murray's mostly straightforward study goes a bit off the rails in the last chapter, in which he slams the advanced welfare state as robbing citizens of personal responsibility, thus "enfeebl[ing] the institutions through which people live satisfying lives." However, with European states buckling and the U.S. gripped by economic downturn, Murray's extrapolations may be heeded. Somewhat cautious, nonacademic work meant to persuade broadly and accessibly.
From the Publisher
"I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s 'Coming Apart.'”
--David Brooks, The New York Times

"Mr. Murray's sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness."
--W. Bradford WilcoxThe Wall Street Journal

"'Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010' brims with ideas about what ails America."
-- The Economist

“a timely investigation into a worsening class divide no one can afford to ignore.” 
--Publisher's Weekly 

“[Charles Murray] argues for the need to focus on what has made the U.S. exceptional beyond its wealth and military power...religion, marriage, industriousness, and morality.” 
--Booklist (Starred Review)

"Charles Murray ... has written an incisive, alarming, and hugely frustrating book about the state of American society."
--Roger Lowenstein, Bloomberg Businessweek 


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Our Kind of People

In which is described the emergence of a new and distinctive culture among a highly influential segment of American society.

ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1987, ABC premiered an hour-long dramatic series with the cryptic title thirtysomething. The opening scene is set in a bar. Not a Cheers bar, where Cliff the mailman perches on a bar stool alongside Norm the accountant and Frasier the psychiatrist, but an airy room, perhaps attached to a restaurant, with sunlight streaming in through paned windows onto off-white walls.

The room is crowded with an upscale clientele gathered for drinks after work, nattily uniformed servers moving among them. Two women in their late twenties or early thirties wearing tailored business outfits are seated at a table. A vase with a minimalist arrangement of irises and forsythia is visible in the background. On the table in front of the women are their drinks- both of them wine, served in classic long-stemmed glasses. Nary a peanut or a pretzel is in sight. One of the women is talking about a man she has started dating. He is attractive, funny, good in bed, she says, but there's a problem: He wears polyester shirts. "Am I allowed to have a relationship with someone who wears polyester shirts?" she asks.

She is Hope Murdoch, the female protagonist. She ends up marrying the man who wore the polyester shirts, who is sartorially correct by the time we see him. Hope went to Princeton. She is a writer who put a promising career on hold when she had a baby. He is Michael Steadman, one of two partners in a fledgling advertising agency in Philadelphia. He went to the University of Pennsylvania (the Ivy League one). Hope and Michael live with their seven-month-old daughter in an apartment with high ceilings, old-fashioned woodwork, and etched-glass windows. Grad-school-like bookcases are untidily crammed with books. An Art Deco poster is on the wall. A Native American blanket is draped over the top of the sofa.

In the remaining forty-five minutes, we get dialogue that includes a reference to left brain/right brain differences and an exchange about evolutionary sexual selection that begins, "You've got a bunch of Australopithecines out on the savanna, right?" The Steadmans buy a $278 baby stroller (1987 dollars). Michael shops for new backpacking gear at a high-end outdoors store, probably REI. No one wears suits at the office. Michael's best friend is a professor at Haverford. Hope breast-feeds her baby in a fashionable restaurant. Hope can't find a babysitter. Three of the four candidates she interviews are too stupid to be left with her child and the other is too Teutonic. Hope refuses to spend a night away from the baby ("I have to be available to her all the time"). Michael drives a car so cool that I couldn't identify the make. All this, in just the first episode.

The culture depicted in thirtysomething had no precedent, with its characters who were educated at elite schools, who discussed intellectually esoteric subjects, and whose sex lives were emotionally complicated and therefore needed to be talked about. The male leads in thirtysomething were on their way up through flair and creativity, not by being organization men. The female leads were conflicted about motherhood and yet obsessively devoted to being state-of-the-art moms. The characters all possessed a sensibility that shuddered equally at Fords and Cadillacs, ranch homes in the suburbs and ponderous mansions, Budweiser and Chivas Regal.

In the years to come, America would get other glimpses of this culture in Mad About You, Ally McBeal, Frasier, and The West Wing, among others, but no show ever focused with the same laser intensity on the culture that thirtysomething depicted-understandably, because the people who live in that culture do not make up much of the audience for network television series, and those who are the core demographic for network television series are not particularly fond of the culture that thirtysomething portrayed. It was the emerging culture of the new upper class.

Let us once again return to November 21, 1963, and try to find its counterpart.

The Baseline

The World of the Upper-Middle Class

Two conditions have to be met before a subculture can spring up within a mainstream culture. First, a sufficient number of people have to possess a distinctive set of tastes and preferences. Second, they have to be able to get together and form a critical mass large enough to shape the local scene. The Amish have managed to do it by achieving local dominance in selected rural areas. In 1963, other kinds of subcultures also existed in parts of the country. Then as now, America's major cities had distinctive urban styles, and so did regions such as Southern California, the Midwest, and the South. But in 1963 there was still no critical mass of the people who would later be called symbolic analysts, the educated class, the creative class, or the cognitive elite.

In the first place, not enough people had college educations to form a critical mass of people with the distinctive tastes and preferences fostered by advanced education. In the American adult population as a whole, just 8 percent had college degrees. Even in neighborhoods filled with managers and professionals, people with college degrees were a minority- just 32 percent of people in those jobs had college degrees in 1963. Only a dozen census tracts in the entire nation had adult populations in which more than 50 percent of the adults had college degrees, and all of them were on or near college campuses.

In the second place, affluence in 1963 meant enough money to afford a somewhat higher standard of living than other people, not a markedly different lifestyle. In 1963, the median family income of people working in managerial occupations and the professions was only $61,500 (2010 dollars, as are all dollar figures from now on). Fewer than 5 percent of American families in 1963 had incomes of $100,000 or more, and fewer than half of 1 percent had incomes of $200,000 or more.

This compressed income distribution was reflected in the residential landscape. In 1963, great mansions were something most Americans saw in the movies, not in person. Only the richest suburbs of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles had entire neighborhoods consisting of mansions. The nature of the change since then can be seen by driving around suburban neighborhoods where the affluent of the 1960s lived, such as Chevy Chase, Maryland; Belmont, Massachusetts; or Shaker Heights, Ohio. Most of the housing stock remaining from that era looks nothing like the 15,000- and 20,000-square-foot homes built in affluent suburbs over the last few decades. No reproductions of French châteaux. No tennis courts. No three-story cathedral ceilings. Nor were the prices astronomically higher than the prices of middle-class homes. The average price of all new homes built in 1963 was $129,000. The average price of homes in Chevy Chase offered for sale in the classified ads of the Washington Post on the Sunday preceding November 21, 1963, was $272,000, and the most expensive was $567,000. To put it another way, you could live in a typical house in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the nation for about twice the average cost of all houses built that year nationwide.

There was a difference between the houses of the upper-middle class and of those who were merely in the middle class. An upper-middle- class home might have four bedrooms instead of two or three, two bathrooms and a powder room instead of one bathroom, and two floors instead of one. It might have a two-car garage, maybe a rec room for the kids and a study for Dad. But it seldom bore any resemblance to a mansion. For an example of elite housing in 1963, download an episode of Mad Men that shows the Drapers' suburban home- that's the kind of house that the creative director of a major New York advertising agency might well have lived in.

The members of the upper-middle-class elite did not have many options for distinguishing themselves by the cars they drove. You could find a few Mercedeses and Jaguars in major cities, but even there they were a pain to keep up, because it was so hard to get spare parts and find a mechanic who could service them. Another factor was at work, too: Executives and professionals in 1963, especially outside New York and Los Angeles, were self-conscious about being seen as show-offs. Many people in the upper-middle class who could have afforded them didn't drive Cadillacs because they were too ostentatious.

Another reason that the lifestyle of the upper-middle class was not dramatically different from that of the middle class was that people who were not wealthy could get access to the top of the line for a lot less in 1963 than in 2010, in the same way that you could live in Chevy Chase for not that much more than you would pay for a house anywhere else. It seems paradoxical from the perspective of 2010. Day- to-day life wasn't cheaper then than it is now. In Washington newspaper advertisements for November 1963, gas was cheaper, at the equivalent of $2.16 per gallon, but a dozen eggs were $3.92, a gallon of milk $3.49, chicken $2.06 a pound, and a sirloin steak $6.80 a pound. The best-selling 1963 Chevy Impala cost about $26,600. At Blum's restaurant in San Francisco, not an expensive restaurant, you paid $12.46 for the hot turkey sandwich, $13.17 for the chef's salad, and $5.34 for the hot fudge sundae. Pearson's liquor store in Washington, DC, had started a wine sale two days earlier, advertising its everyday wines at prices from about $6 to $12. All of these prices would have looked familiar, in some cases a little expensive, to a consumer in 2010.

But the most expensive wasn't necessarily out of reach of the middle class. In 1963, one of the most expensive restaurants in Washington was the newly opened Sans Souci, just a block from the White House and a great favorite of the Kennedy administration. The Washington Post's restaurant critic had a meal of endive salad, poached turbot, chocolate mousse, and coffee for a total of $44.91. The image of a luxury car to Americans in 1963 was a Cadillac. Its most expensive model, the Eldorado Biarritz, listed at $47,000. That same Pearson's advertisement selling vin ordinaire for $6 to $12 offered all the first-growth Bordeaux from the legendary 1959 vintage for about $50 a bottle (yes, I'm still using 2010 dollars).

And so there just wasn't that much difference between the lifestyle of a highly influential attorney or senior executive of a corporation and people who were several rungs down the ladder. Upper-middle-

class men in 1963 drank Jack Daniel's instead of Jim Beam in their highballs and drove Buicks (or perhaps Cadillacs) instead of Chevies. Their suits cost more, but they were all off the rack, and they all looked the same anyway. Their wives had more dress clothes and jewelry than wives in the rest of America, and their hairdressers were more expensive. But just about the only thing that amounted to a major day- to-day lifestyle difference between the upper-middle class and the rest of America was the country club, with its golf course, tennis court, and swimming pool that were closed to the hoi polloi. On the other hand, there were lots of municipal golf courses, tennis courts, and swimming pools, too.

The supreme emblem of wealth in 2010 didn't even exist in 1963. The first private jet, the Learjet Model 23, wouldn't be delivered for another year. Private and corporate planes consisted mostly of Cessnas and Beechcrafts, small and cramped. Only a few hundred large private planes existed, and they were all propeller-driven. The owners of even the poshest of them had to recognize that an economy seat on a commercial DC-8 or Boeing 707 provided a smoother, quieter, and much faster ride.

The World of the Rich

Still, a private plane is a major difference in lifestyle, even if it is not a jet, and private planes did exist in 1963. Shall we look for a distinct upper-class culture among the wealthy?

In 1963, millionaire was synonymous with not just the affluent but the wealthy. A million dollars was serious money even by today's standards, equivalent to about $7.2 million in 2010 dollars. But there were so few millionaires- fewer than 80,000, amounting to two-tenths of 1 percent of American families. The authentically wealthy in 1963 comprised a microscopic fraction of the population.

Some portion of that small number had no distinct preferences and tastes because they had made their money themselves after growing up in middle-class or working-class families. They hadn't gone to college at all, or they had attended the nearest state college. They might live in duplexes on Park Avenue or mansions on Nob Hill, but they were the nouveaux riches. Some acted like the stereotype of the nouveaux riches. Others continued to identify with their roots and lived well but not ostentatiously.

The subset of old-money millionaires did have something resembling a distinct culture. Besides living in a few select neighborhoods, they were concentrated in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. They summered or wintered in a few select places such as Bar Harbor, Newport, and Palm Beach. They sent their children to a select set of prep schools and then to the Ivy League or the Seven Sisters. Within their enclaves, old-money America formed a distinct social group.

But besides being a tiny group numerically, there was another reason that they did not form an upper-class culture that made any difference to the rest of the nation. Those who hadn't made the money themselves weren't especially able or influential. Ernest Hemingway was right in his supposed exchange with F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1963, the main difference between the old-money rich and everybody else was mainly that they had more money.

Take, for example, the woman who was the embodiment of the different world of the rich, Marjorie Merriweather Post. Heiress to the founder of the company that became General Foods, one of the wealthiest women in America, she owned palatial homes in Washington, Palm Beach, and on Long Island, furnished with antiques and objets from the castles of Europe. She summered in the Adirondacks, at Camp Topridge, surrounded by her private 207 acres of forest and lakes. She took her sailing vacations on Sea Cloud, the largest privately owned sailing yacht in the world, and flew in her own Vickers Viscount airliner, with a passenger cabin decorated as a living room, probably the largest privately owned aircraft in the world.

Hers was not a life familiar to many other Americans. But, with trivial exceptions, it was different only in the things that money could buy. When her guests assembled for dinner, the men wore black tie, a footman stood behind every chair, the silver was sterling, and the china had gold leaf.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s 'Coming Apart.'”
—David Brooks, The New York Times

"Mr. Murray's sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness."
W. Bradford WilcoxThe Wall Street Journal

"'Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010' brims with ideas about what ails America."
— The Economist

“a timely investigation into a worsening class divide no one can afford to ignore.” 
Publisher's Weekly 

“[Charles Murray] argues for the need to focus on what has made the U.S. exceptional beyond its wealth and military power...religion, marriage, industriousness, and morality.” 
Booklist (Starred Review)

"Charles Murray ... has written an incisive, alarming, and hugely frustrating book about the state of American society."
—Roger Lowenstein, Bloomberg Businessweek 


Read More

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Coming Apart 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Joesmar More than 1 year ago
I read this book on the recommendation of my father-in-law so we could discuss it. While I did find it interesting, it read like a high school or college sociology textbook. I do not recommend it for Nook as the line graphs are hard to read and he refers to them often and it is hard to find them again.
FrontPorchReview More than 1 year ago
i'm not sure why an author has to be "self-aware" as opposed to "self-absorbed" to write on a topic (i can find several examples of excellent books by authors who are most likely self-absorbed). in addition, how a reviewer boasts a solid conclusion to that effect is beyond self-righteousness. most likely an effect of being in an elite bubble that Murray wonderfully describes in the book. otherwise, how does a person say something subjective - unless he is a professional psychologist - as calling someone self-absorbed in an assured way as to seem objective? because he assumes he is right about everything, thus making him an elite. perhaps not in status, but in his own mind. the "Tom Wolfe" reviewer also uses the word "obviously", without backing his assertions up with any amount of proof or argument whatsoever. i found this to be another example of the absolutely obvious nature of the reviewer's self-righteousness. the statistics and conclusions in this book are incredibly rational with subjective nuances about human nature in tact. i will leave the potential reader with one example that does not necessarily require statistics or more proof than we've all seen with our own eyes: Murray comes to the conclusion that children brought up (gasp!) in two-parent homes do better in life. Murray also brings up several points regarding the pursuit of happiness as it was originally intented in what he calls "the American Project". in so doing, he uses basic definitions of happiness as opposed to "unhinged hedonism" some may associate with happiness in modern times. the book brings up excellent points about how culture is affecting destructive or what he calls "unseemly" behavior that results from a society with less codes of honor or morals. one such example he provides is an "unseemly" severence package for a failed CEO. Murray points out that these packages are NOT illegal but are morally reprehensible. in other words, Murray concludes that a society that loses it's moral bearings erodes itself from the inside. even if one disagrees with Murray's conclusion(s), it will provide the reader with a facinating read for those interested in the social sciences, or even human nature in general. [one can preview Murray's presentation and summary of the book on booktv's website - i believe only the elite would find Charles Murray "self-absorbed" because they can never admit they are wrong or argue on topic]
rkbl More than 1 year ago
Startling statistics. So startling that even if half of what he says is true, it's hard to discount his basic premise. If you've ever felt like the classes were much further apart in America than they've ever been, this book provides some possible explanations. Recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent analysis of societal shift. Reads like a text book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an enlightening and compelling book. It was much more so because Mr. Murray limited his data to only the white population, which took away the racial bias he had been accused of in some of his earlier work. I would have been interested though in hearing Mr. Murray expand on his views regarding the specific underlying political and social policy events that help to explain the changes that began to occur during the 70s and 80s. Were Medicaid and other social programs contributors, such as the expansion of the definition of disability under the social security program? Also what impact might illegal drug use have had, or was the increase in illegal drug use a consequence of the social/economic disparity that was beginning to occur during those decades?
mermao More than 1 year ago
This is not light reading, but author Charles Murray does make sociology and statistics understandable to the lay reader. His picture of the trajectories of the white upper and lower classes since about 1960 is in some respects just the opposite of media stereotypes. He is concerned and I think rightly so about the growing rigidity of socio-economic class distinctions in the US even as most Americans continue to deny that such classes exist at all. What to do about it is another matter. Murray admires how most of the upper class live their lives and wishes they would preach what they practice. That might help or not, but it doesn't seem like a one stop solution to the various problems he outlines.
WriterRani More than 1 year ago
My thoughts- This book was interesting, but I think that 300 pages for the main text was too long. It could have been shorter and gotten to the point faster. I have never thought that the census was that important and asked a lot of personal questions that it didn’t need to. This book showed me how important the census is and what kind of information can be gotten from it. Without this information there would be no book. I thought the last chapter was the best, because it was no longer about numbers and it talked about Charles Murray’s opinion and where the United States will be in the future. We can already see in Europe what happens when heritage is forgotten. As a country we need to get back to our founding fathers’ virtues, so that we can have a strong future without such a strong separation between classes. I recommend this book to those who want to learn how America is coming apart culturally. Disclosure of Material Connection- I received Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray for free from the WaterBrook Multnomah “Blogging For Books” program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Murray relates his perspective of the social changes over the designated time frame, the resulting grouping of like minded population clusters, and the likely results therefrom. It may be that such "clustering" is to be expected and perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by such. Someone else said it, but I suggest it applies in this case..."birds of a feather flock together".
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Facing your truth of hows and why doesn't nessesaialy make the problem disappear but it isa Damn good start at any ag
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MaryRuthP More than 1 year ago
This book was my first reading experience in the field of social sciences. After reading it, I now know why I am not a sociologist. The facts that Murray presented in Coming Apart concerning the shifts and changes that have taken place in American society over the last fifty years were very interesting, and he put into words and numbers trends and movements that I have vaguely sensed but never fully understood before. However, the sheer amount of detail he included was overwhelming, to say the least. Three hundred pages of detail, followed by another hundred pages of appendices. Everything was presented in an orderly manner with plenty of explanation and interpretation of the data, but I couldn't help thinking as I read, "You could have made the same point just as powerfully in about 1/3 the words". As I said, I'm not a sociologist, so there could be elements of the book that I failed to appreciate. However, as a reasonably good reader, I found Coming Apart to be simply too overloaded with dry details. The points the author made were interesting, though, and I for one wouldn't mind reading a condensed version of this book if one were to be published. I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review. A favorable review was not required; my opinions are my own.
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