Coming Apart, Charles Murray’s much-discussed recent book on the widening cultural divide between the upper and lower classes in white America, has drawn criticism for failing to give proper attention to the role of reduced income in the collapse of community and family values in working-class neighborhoods. Murray answered his critics with a brief article demonstrating that, in 2010 dollars, typical income levels in white working-class America are higher now than in 1960. Therefore, explanations for worrisome changes—fewer marriages; more disability claims from men in their prime; nonmarital births approaching 50 percent—must lie elsewhere.
Murray blames a deterioration of shared values such as honesty, hard work, marriage, and religion, a decline especially damaging to working-class Americans. For this cultural malaise, Murray proposes a cultural cure:
The prerequisite for any eventual policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn’t even looking for work is behaving badly. There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren’t working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums.
It’s startling to see “bums”—a word rarely heard now outside the world of baseball—in cold print. But that’s just Murray’s point: “We need to drop our nonjudgmentalism.” If men of disreputable conduct are treated respectfully, Murray says, they will never abandon their bad habits.
To bring to life this wealth of disturbing data on white America, Murray creates two theoretical communities: an upper-class town he calls “Belmont” and an urban working-class neighborhood called “Fishtown.” Though both of his constructs are fictional, they are also the names of real places: Belmont, Massachusetts, is a pleasant, well-to-do suburb just west of Boston, while Fishtown is a lower-income neighborhood in northeastern Philadelphia. Murray’s task is to persuade the successful residents of the real Belmont and similar communities that they can help repair America’s damaged culture if they show some constructive disdain toward feckless men who live in the real Fishtown.
It won’t be an easy sell. Located in the heart of liberal Middlesex County, Belmont is well-versed in the rules of political correctness and the euphemisms of modern American discourse. However, the town is also the former home of the John Birch Society, the present residence of Mitt Romney, and the site of a Mormon temple. Murray’s best hope for reviving judgmentalism in Belmont may be that, left or right, local folks aren’t shy about badmouthing the opposition. Say “Tea Party” or “hope and change” to a Belmonter and see what happens.
But moving from partisan attacks to looking down on irresponsible men is a tricky leap. Thousands of people in Belmont think it’s fine for Bill Maher to get rich hurling obscenities at Sarah Palin and then to share his profits with the Obama reelection campaign. At the same time, few residents of Belmont would dream of describing low-income men in Fishtown as “bums,” no matter how feckless their conduct. Why this reluctance of Belmonters to speak out against deadbeat behavior they would never engage in themselves? Is it political correctness that keeps them muzzled, or something else?
Fishtown gets its name from shad fisheries that crowded the banks of the Delaware River in colonial days. As Philadelphia grew into a manufacturing and commerce center, Fishtown remained a blue-collar (shipbuilding and textiles) neighborhood, with a strong sense of community. In the late twentieth century, industry (Jack Frost Sugar, Ortlieb Brewing, Stetson Hats) abandoned North Philly. Beset by unemployment, crime, failing schools, decay, and drugs, Fishtown fell on hard times.
Today, crime has dropped, the neighborhood is generally stable and showing signs of gentrification, and some men in Fishtown have steady jobs. But many others are not steadily employed and not necessarily looking for work, either. These men get by thanks to a combination of government programs and a variety of personal-subsistence strategies: food stamps, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment checks, manipulating the disability and foster-care systems, pushing a little dope, scavenging, misdemeanors, working off the books, hustling odd jobs, vending their blood, and attaching themselves to working women in the classic style that’s been part of urban America for decades.
Murray calls this way of life “unmanly,” and at one time Belmont would have agreed. But that was back when the men of Fishtown could find good jobs at the Jack Frost Sugar refinery on Delaware Avenue. Men who refused such jobs, or who preferred to spend their afternoons in a bar, were called bums by their own friends and neighbors. Today, the Jack Frost site is home to the shiny new SugarHouse Casino (mostly slot machines, with some gaming tables). The old Fishtown culture of productivity and self-discipline—bolstered from within by strong families and religion—is in tatters, replaced by government subsidies and a life of risk.
What has “come apart” in America is not just the shared culture of work and family that once linked Belmont with Fishtown. A gulf has opened between the Fishtown of yesterday and the one we see today. It’s an open question whether Jack Frost definitions of manhood apply to a community that lives by SugarHouse rules.
But if feckless men in Fishtown are not unmanly, what are they? Murray invites us to choose our own words; I suggest “remittance men.” In nineteenth-century Britain, sons, brothers, and uncles whose disreputable conduct made them an embarrassment to their families sometimes received an offer they couldn’t refuse: “Move to Capetown, Jamaica, or Tasmania, and—provided you never come back to England—we will send you a monthly remittance. It won’t be a lot, but you’ll be able to live without working.”
Do the residents of Belmont (median household income $95,000) and countless other communities like it have a similar understanding of Fishtown’s feckless men? The Belmonts of America help fund the various government payments that keep neighborhoods like Fishtown afloat. In return for remitting to the tax man, Belmont, Massachusetts (83.5 percent white, 11.1 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, and 1.8 percent black) gets a measure of isolation from the troubles and failures of urban neighborhoods. Murray wants moral interaction between Belmont and the remittance men. He wants upscale Americans to show leadership, to teach the secrets of their success, just as they would to members of their own families, including using blunt words where needed.
It’s a brave proposal, but one wonders if it comes too late. For years Murray warned that anti-poverty programs can become traps, with “perverse incentives” that lure the poor into lives of permanent dependence. Perverse incentives create perverse cultures: in ours, being a moral person means a willingness to send money. Belmont expresses moral concern for Fishtown the way that Victorian remittance-payers dealt with Uncle Henry: by sending cash. Did relatives in England really care if Henry blew his stipend in a Hong Kong SugarHouse? Or if he got mixed up in shady schemes in Calcutta? Did they call him a bum for not marrying the women who bore his children? Everyone understood that Henry’s job was not to lead an exemplary life. His job was to take the remittance money and stay away.
In remittance culture, morality equals money. Raising taxes, therefore, becomes a moral crusade. New sources of revenue must be found, and quickly. If the remittance dries up, remittance men might come home. This lesson has not been lost on Occupy Wall Street. They will continue to play Uncle Henry until someone remits.
The gap between Belmont and Fishtown, however, might not be as large as Charles Murray fears. The two communities do share a common culture of sorts: in 2008, Belmont voted 70 percent for Obama, while the white voters of Fishtown—where racist invective is often heard on the streets—gave Obama 81 percent of their votes. Remittance men know which side of the aisle their bread is buttered on. The moral contract between Belmont and Fishtown is signed and sealed. Belmont taxpayers will continue to send the monthly check, and Fishtown’s remittance men will hold up their part of the deal by keeping their distance.