If you were listening reasonably carefully to last Wednesday's Republican presidential candidate debate, you heard Rick Santorum say, "Charles Murray just wrote a book about this."
The question was about Santorum's remarks on contraception, but his answer addressed the broader issue of "the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock in America." That is indeed one of the subjects -- but only one -- of Murray's new book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 to 2010."
Murray is a distinguished social scientist, a brilliant miner of data and a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute.
He is no stranger to controversy. His 1984 book "Losing Ground" helped inspire welfare reform in the 1990s. His 1994 book "The Bell Curve" (co-authored by Richard Herrnstein) drew spurious charges of racism, which is perhaps one reason why he limited "Coming Apart" to whites.
"Coming Apart" tells us important things about America and, without intending to, sheds interesting light on the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Murray's argument is that we have seen a significant decline among whites in what he considers America's founding virtues -- industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity -- over the last 50 years.
That decline has not been uniform among different segments of the white population, however.
Among the top 20 percent in income and education, Murray finds that rates of marriage and church attendance, after falling marginally in the 1970s, have plateaued out at a high level since then. And these people have been working longer hours than ever.
He labels this group Belmont, after the upscale Boston suburb.
In contrast, among the bottom 30 percent of whites, those indicators started falling in the 1970s and have been plunging ever since, to historical lows by 2008, even before the onset of the recession and the current economic doldrums.
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