Poverty & Wealth

Part Two: Charles Murray, the Long View

Coming Apart caps three decades of faux concern for the poor.

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The following is the second in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 . For part one, please click here . In Coming Apart , Charles Murray begins by describing white America on the eve of the Kennedy assassination—a unified society where everyone watched the same three networks, few people had children out of wedlock or got divorced, neighbors didn’t need to lock their doors, and most folks felt themselves to be middle class. Murray wields the symbolic power of the rupture that ripped America on November 22, 1963, to suggest a parallel break in our economic lives. He contrasts a notional working-class neighborhood, “Fishtown,” with “Belmont,” home to the most affluent 5 percent. Since 1963, he reports, our coherent world has given way to cultural and economic fragmentation. America “is coming apart at the seams.” Murray baits his trap with descriptive material that reads like an American Prospect article, quoting Robert Reich’s “...

Charles Murray, the Long View

In 1984, the right's star public intellectual wrote the book that drove welfare reform. Coming Apart is an alibi for his own failed big idea.

(Courtesy of Crown Forum)
The following is the first in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. F or a generation, the main story of working-class America has been the collapse of a living-wage economy due to such forces as globalization, weakened trade unions, and reduced government labor regulation. This trend has been a social catastrophe and, increasingly, a severe embarrassment to free-market ideology. Enter Charles Murray with a lifeline of alibis. His Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 has received worshipful treatment from conservative commentators, and for good reason. Faced with the awkward truth of widening inequality, the right usually adopts a strategy of strained denial. Murray offers an alternative. Instead of waltzing around the reality, he deplores the new schisms in America and then executes a deft pivot: Both the elite and the unwashed, he says, are getting what they deserve. The rich are getting richer because their...

Is There An Actual Crisis in U.S. Education?

(Flickr/-Marlith-)
Over at the American Journalism Review , The Washington Post 's Paul Farhi has a much-needed critique on how the "education in crisis" narrative cropped up in journalism across the country. Farhi, a veteran education reporter, notes how widespread the idea of school failure has become, pointing out that in January alone, there were at least 544 stories about "failing schools" (He doesn't even mention the report from the Council on Foreign Relations arguing education has gotten so bad it constitutes a national security risk ). While the stories tend to carry similar messages—in particular that self-proclaimed education reformers are helping to stop the downward spiral—these conclusions don't square with all the data. Elementary and middle school students have improved consistently in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study , and matriculation to higher education has never been higher. "All told," Farhi writes, "America's long-term achievements in education are nothing...

Drug Tests for Everyone!

Right this way Representative... (Flickr/Francis Storr)
Drug testing is in these days. Already, Arizona and Missouri test anyone receiving government aid who's suspected of drug use. (In other words, leave your Bob Marley shirt at home.) In Florida, meanwhile, the humiliating process is guaranteed—everyone getting aid must also pee in a cup. 23 states are considering such laws this year, according to USA Today. On Monday alone, a panel in Oklahoma approved one drug-testing measure , while Utah's governor signed a measure into law. If tax dollars are heading in your direction, the thinking goes, we have to make sure you're not some junkie. Many frame the issue as one of fiscal responsibility—if you can afford to do drugs, you should not receive aid. (The extra dose of humiliation recipients face is just a side benefit, I guess.) It's not just those receiving aid who are suspect. Florida beefed up its laws this year with a measure requiring random drug tests for those receiving a state paycheck. Governor Rick Scott just signed it into law a...

Georgia's War over Charter Schools Heads to the Ballot

(Flickr/knittymarie)
For months, the Georgia Legislature has served as a key battleground for the charter-schools debate. Now the fight goes to the voters, who will ultimately decide the fate of a constitutional amendment to allow "state-chartered" schools over the objection of local school boards. The measure, which creates a state charter-school commission to approve charters rejected by local school boards, became a major focal point of the legislative session. Wausau Daily Herald broke down the thousands of dollars that lobbyists spent on meals and gifts to woo state lawmakers to their side, which verge on the ridiculous. For instance, the American Federation for Children, advocating for the measure, "paid $75 for frames for photos of state lawmakers with former Braves pitcher John Smoltz." The House passed the measure in March, but it stalled in the Senate. It was only on Monday that four Democrats chose to support the measure , giving it more than the two-thirds it needed. Now advocates and...

Texans Fight Back Against Cuts

(Flickr/WeNews)
It's hard to overstate just how dire the situation is around women's health care in Texas. The state has the third highest rate of cervical cancer in the country and one in four women are uninsured. After cutting family-planning funding by around two-thirds last legislative session, conservative lawmakers are now standing by their decision to cut off Planned Parenthood from the state's Women's Health Program, a move that ended $35 million in federal funding. (Here's a timeline of the fight .) Governor Rick Perry, who bragged about the decision at the recent CPAC conference, has said he'll find the money to keep the program—while still barring Planned Parenthood. No one seems to know exactly where he'll find the money, given that the state has already underfunded Medicaid by $4 billion last session. In the meantime, Planned Parenthood, which serves 40 percent of the 130,000 who rely on the Women's Health Program, has already had to shut down more than a dozen clinics . Non-Planned...

Wall Street Agonistes

(Flickr/Matthew Knott)
So the op-ed of the day is "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs" in The New York Times , by an executive named Greg Smith, explaining that he's leaving the firm after 12 years because its culture—which previously "revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients"—has devolved into a single-minded focus on (gasp!) making money . Who would have imagined? After all, we're talking about the firm Matt Taibbi memorably called "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." This comes on the heels of yesterday's blog post of the day, called "Why I Left Google," by James Whittaker, saying much the same thing, that all that "Don't Be Evil" stuff has left Google, which since Eric Schmidt departed as CEO in favor of co-founder Larry Page has become nothing more than a firm that wants to (gasp again!) make money. The first (and perhaps correct) response to this is to...

Are You Eating Fish Caught By Slaves?

(Flickr/sarahalaskaphotographs)
According to sociologist Kevin Bales, who founded and directs the new abolition group Free the Slaves , an estimated 27 million people are enslaved around the world today—more than were ever enslaved at any single time in history. The United Nation's International Labour Organization estimates are a more modest 12.3 million —which is still a shocking number of people forced to labor against their will, unable to walk away, for no compensation. Much of the reporting on this phenomenon has been on women forced to work in the sex trades. But the U.S. State Department reports that many more people are enslaved in far more ordinary endeavors: mining coltrane, growing cotton, domestic servitude, and fishing in the south Pacific. Ben Skinner , whom I'm honored to call my colleague at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, is the foremost reporter on the particulars of this horror. His book A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Slavery , offered an in-depth look at both...

Occupy's Return From Hibernation

The movement will next take on foreclosures.

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
As winter fades, the Occupy Wall Street movement is heating up again. But don’t expect the same focus on physical encampments and rowdy protests. While the blood of the 99 percent is still boiling at the injustice of growing inequality, in organizing meetings and workgroups, cooler heads are prevailing. This is Occupy 2.0—the mainstreaming of momentum. From my conversations with Occupy organizers and supporters, my sense is that the main thrust of organizing energy and attention will go toward Occupy Our Homes — a coalition of Occupy activists joining with existing grassroots groups to support families that are facing foreclosure or have been evicted by big banks. Prioritizing Occupy Our Homes is great choice for two reasons. First, the foreclosure crisis is immense and growing. Despite the recent mortgage settlement with state attorneys general that will grant 750,000 foreclosed-upon families a whopping $2,000 each (!), 4.2 million families have already been foreclosed upon during...

Where Was the Outrage Over Texas's Sonogram Law?

(AP Photo/Richmond Times Dispatch/Bob Brown)
Pro-choice advocates around the country cheered Wednesday, as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell withdrew support for a pre-abortion sonogram bill . The bill had risen to national attention, even earning a spot on The Daily Show. Critics focused on a particularly disturbing detail of the measure—most women having abortions have them early in the pregnancy, too early for the usual "jelly on the belly" ultrasound. So the bill mandated transvaginal sonograms, in which a probe would be stuck inside a woman's vagina and she would be offered a chance to see the fetus before she could terminate the pregnancy. "During the entire wand-forcibly-inserted-in-your-most-private-area experience, you still have complete and total control over which way your head is turned," The Daily Show's Jon Stewart told his guests. The focus from national media, social media, and bloggers all likely helped to force McDonnell into changing his position. At the same time many protested the Virginia effort, Texas this...

Bare Minimum Wage

Big business lobbyists work to prevent any rise in workers' paychecks.

(Flickr/wbeem)
The federal minimum for an hourly wage was $3.35 in 1982 and now it’s $7.25, up 120 percent. Inflation, meanwhile, has climbed during that period by 135 percent. Eight states, including New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, are considering legislation to boost the base wage. Advocates say that such state measures are fair and make good economic sense: Putting more money in the hands of workers means more demand—good news for small businesses struggling to overcome poor sales . Then there’s politics. More than two-thirds of Americans favor raising the hourly wage to at least $10. You’d think it would be a win-win for state officials, but it’s not. While truly small businesses like restaurants and retail shops have said in the past that raising the wage will have little or no effect on labor costs , large corporations that pay minimum wage, like fast-food chains, have enormous incentive to propagandize against any increase. One of the most active in the propaganda industry has been the...

The New Freedom Riders

A multiracial group of young people are fighting to end the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program.

(Flickr/Tim Drivas)
Two things struck William Rivera about the 30 protesters who, after an hour of chanting and speechifying to cameras, cops, and the curious, were now marching deeper into the Bronx on an overcast January afternoon. The first was that somebody was finally speaking out against the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, a tactic in which officers pat down and question people on the street without a warrant. The second was that a lot of those somebodies were white. “Hell, yeah, I’m surprised that white people come out here fighting for us,” says Rivera, 24. Police, he says, stop him three or four times a week, and he now automatically assumes the “shirt up” position whenever officers cross his path. “I know it’s not normal or right that I accept that, but it’s how we have to live,” Rivera says of his South Bronx neighborhood, where talking back to cops, he adds, is not an option. “Maybe if the government or the police see their own people helping out, maybe they’ll pull back...

Republican Haves and Have Nots

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Republicans have reached their 1984. I don’t mean this in the Orwellian sense, though Republicans have more than their share of Orwellian impulses. Rather, I mean that the kind of divisions that have characterized Democratic presidential primaries since the 1984 contest between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart have now popped up in GOP primaries as well: This year, Republicans are dividing along lines of class. According to data compiled by the Wall Street Journal , in all the states that have voted thus far, Mitt Romney has won 46 percent of the counties with incomes higher than the statewide median , and just 15 percent of those with incomes beneath the statewide median. Rick Santorum, by contrast, has won 39 percent of the counties with higher income, and 46 percent of those with lower income. These numbers—a product of the kind of residential-sorting-by-class that Charles Murray documents in his new book, “ Coming Apart ”—reinforce exit polling that shows Romney’s strongest supporters...

No Such Thing as an Arizona Free Lunch

(Flickr/USDAgov)
Subsidized school lunches always seemed like a government program most people could get behind. The federal program gives food to low-income children. Giving food to children who live in poverty—hard to argue with that idea. In 2010, I was covering a state legislative race out in East Texas. A Tea Party candidate explained to me that free school lunches are bad for society, because were it not for the government program, parents would provide food for their kids on their own. If the kids still couldn't get food, then he believed churches and charities should pick up the slack, rather than the government. But sadly for my Tea Party friend, in Texas, free lunches may be one of the few federal programs that hasn't stirred up too much controversy. Nationally, however, there's been no shortage of criticism of the program, particularly last year as Congress considered a proposal that would make meals more nutritious. The legislative fight soon became about which agriculture sectors had the...

Hidden Gems in the Mortgage Deal

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
In the end, as at the start, Thursday’s deal between five big banks, the Department of Justice, and the attorneys general of 49 states came down to New York, the center of mortgage securitization and securities misrepresentation, and California, the center of mortgage mis-origination. Those states’ attorneys general—New York’s Eric Schneiderman and California’s Kamala Harris, both progressive Democrats elected in 2010—weren’t about the give the banks a pass. Which is why it wasn’t until two a.m. Thursday that the deal was finalized. Schneiderman’s chief concern was to preserve and enhance his and other law enforcement agencies’ ability to investigate the banks. Harris’s foremost interest was to secure the best deal for the hundreds of thousands of California homeowners who were struggling to make the payments on their devalued homes. Together, they compelled the banks and the Obama administration to come up with a better deal than the one that the banks and the Justice Department had...

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