The cultural earthquake that Murray has brought to national attention in Coming Apart goes as follows: Whatever the causes, the social disintegration that once seemed to apply only to African Americans has now engulfed blue-collar, white working-class communities as well. Men are dropping out of the workforce, single motherhood has risen to nearly 50 percent, crime has skyrocketed, religious faith is declining, and the chances for upward mobility are rapidly diminishing. As Murray concludes: "The absolute level [of social cohesion] is so low that it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation."Where does the government come in? Right here.
Now the process has been disrupted by abortion and the ubiquitousness of social programs. AFDC is gone but there is Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers, and the latest form of "welfare," Social Security Disability Benefits, all of which can make a man's paycheck look small. As Mario Cuomo once bragged, "If we take a 16-year-old single mother, get her on welfare, give her food stamps, get her in her own apartment and have her back in school taking classes, what's the problem?" As a consequence, illegitimacy in Fishtown and other white working-class neighborhoods is already 25 percent and for mothers under 30 has reached 50 percent.As long as we permit government to treat us as exalted lab rats, this kind of thing will be the inevitable consequence.
Yet you can't blame just the unmarried mothers. Murray shows that blue-collar men have also changed drastically over the last few decades. Maybe it's the sense that they aren't entirely responsible for pregnancies—after all, the girlfriend can always get an abortion, can't she?—or maybe it's just the futility of competing with government programs, but the work ethic among Fishtown men has collapsed. Unemployment, which was below the national average until 1980, has climbed to 50 percent above. While 10 percent of working men put in less than 40 hours at their jobs in 1960, 20 percent do today. The number of prime-age men who have dropped out of the labor force altogether was only 3 percent in 1970, 14 percent in 2010. As Murray says, "[O]nce, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community…. [N]ow it doesn't."