The Great Divide in "White America"?!?

Kara Powell | Feb 1, 2012

While much of what we analyze here at the FYI blog is directly youth related, every once in a while a broader study or body of research is so interesting that we think it deserves mention here. Such is the case of a book out this week called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by William Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

I havent read the book, but thanks to a recommendation of an FYI Advisory Council member, I read a recent excerpt in the Wall Street Journal.

Building upon a variety of data sources, Murray looks at the growing divide in America (as indicated in his sub-title, with a special focus on White America). The Wall Street Journal excerpt highlights the growing changes in families between upper and lower class white Americans by describing two fictitious towns: Belmont (an archetypal upper-middle-class suburb that represents about 20% of the white American population from ages 30-49) and Fishtown (an iconic town populated by the white working class that represents about 30% of the white American population from ages 30-49).

Murray describes:

To be assigned to Belmont, the people in the statistical nationwide databases on which I am drawing must have at least a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media. To be assigned to Fishtown, they must have no academic degree higher than a high-school diploma. If they work, it must be in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job such as cashier, or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist

In Belmont and Fishtown, here’s what happened to America’s common culture between 1960 and 2010.

Marriage: In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites in both Belmont and Fishtown were married94% in Belmont and 84% in Fishtown. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in both places. Then came the great divergence. In Belmont, marriage stabilized during the mid-1980s, standing at 83% in 2010. In Fishtown, however, marriage continued to slide; as of 2010, a minority (just 48%) were married. The gap in marriage between Belmont and Fishtown grew to 35 percentage points, from just 10.

Single parenthood: Another aspect of marriagethe percentage of children born to unmarried womenshowed just as great a divergence. Though politicians and media eminences are too frightened to say so, nonmarital births are problematic. On just about any measure of development you can think of, children who are born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than children raised in intact families. This unwelcome reality persists even after controlling for the income and education of the parents.

In the midst of attention that has been rightly given to the divide among races, by examining one ethnic population, Murray has helped us understand an additional divide (that some argue might even be more influential than ethnicity): socio-economic.

Regardless of your familys and your ministrys ethnicity or economic status, I urge you to take seriously one of Murrays conclusions/pontifications: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting.

With whom are you personally building a relationship with that has a different ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic status? What would it take for you to get to the place where you could actually have an honest discussion with them, asking them questions about their background and context, learning more about their struggles and victories?

What opportunities are you providing for the teenagers you know to do the same? If your school is heavily dominated by a particular class or ethnicity, do the extracurricular activities that your teenager is involved in help give them a more balanced view of the worldboth present and future?

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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