Thursday, February 9, 2012

Do rural places transcend class?

That seems to be one assertion of Charles Murray, whose book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, has just been published. Actually, I've not yet read the book, but judging by this story about it in the New York Times, Murray believes that rural places have a leveling effect--class wise--in comparison to urban ones.

Murray moved his family from Washington, DC, to Burkittsville, Maryland, "a historic rural town of about 170 people"about two decades ago. He did so, he says, because he "did not want [his] children to grow up only knowing other upper-middle-class kids like themselves," which was what he believed would happen if he stayed in DC.
"Life in Burkittsville, as [Murray] described it, approximates the small-town virtues he enjoyed growing up in Newton, Iowa, where, as the son of a manager at Maytag, he could mingle easily with the children of assembly-line workers.

In Burkittsville, [Murray] said, he and his wife attend Quaker meetings and enjoy friendships with both other professionals and blue-collar tradespeople, whose travails he cited to counter the suggestion that the problems described in Coming Apart might have something to do with the disappearance of working-class jobs.

Until the recession hit, Mr. Murray insisted, his blue-collar friends were eager to hire apprentices at good wages but struggled to find anyone willing to do the work. "They are looking at a marked deterioration in industriousness that is real and palpable," [Murray] said.
Leaving aside for a moment the more controversial aspects of Murray's book--such as the argument that the white working class have succumbed to moral decay and that the state of affairs he describes has nothing to do with the loss of good working class jobs--I want to consider whether Murray is correct that rural areas are more level class-wise than urban ones.

Certainly myth holds that rural places are without class divisions--even more so than the rest of America, which as a whole--by some accounts (increasingly outdated and discounted)--is unstratified by class. But some authors have challenged this myth with empirical, longitudinal studies, particularly in relation to rural locales marked by significant poverty.

I haven't been able to find a lot of information about Burkittsville, in particular, but the photo of it on wikipedia looks awfully salubrious. I note that surrounding Frederick County, Maryland has a poverty rate of just 4.8%, about a third of the national rate. Plus, Frederick County is part of the Washington, Arlington, Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metro area. It may thus be a more level place than, oh, say, Kalorama or Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, but it is hardly a place where Murray and his family are likely to have many (or any) encounters with real poverty. Plus, it isn't actually rural by many measures.

Read additional commentary on Murray's book here.

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