What's wrong with Fishtown?

Posted: February 21, 2012

By Donna Cooper

In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray uses Fishtown as a prototypical white, lower-class community in decline. Philadelphians know Fishtown as one of a few city neighborhoods attracting urban hipsters and young families. Where Sanka was once considered gourmet, La Colombe is now widely sold. I should know; I've lived in Fishtown for 27 years.

An earlier book that Murray cowrote, The Bell Curve, was roundly criticized for its flawed conclusion that blacks are on average less intelligent than whites. In Coming Apart, Murray avoids accusations of racism by suggesting that the eroding moral character of low-income white Americans is driving down their average IQ as well.

Murray breathes life into the notion that America has a unique moral code in which honesty, religiosity, industriousness, and marriage reign. Among the early proponents of this idea was Francis Grund, a 19th-century German American newspaperman, fickle political player, and a bit of a swindler who spent some time in the City of Brotherly Love.

Murray laments the declining status of the men who stand idly on corners in Fishtown. I do, too. But I am less willing to attribute the full extent of this malaise to defects of character.

Murray asserts that "the empirical relationship that exists among marriage, industriousness, honesty and religion and a self-governing society mean that the damage is done, even if no one intends it." As evidence of this, he cites the large number of Fishtown men who are "economically ineffective" because they are not jumping at the opportunity to earn $21,000 a year as a janitor.

Outdated idea

What Murray misses is that Fishtown illustrates the failure of our economy to fulfill the inextricably linked promises of prosperity and personal responsibility. In the 1960s, children in Fishtown lived in relatively stable homes, because their fathers could find jobs that paid enough to support their families. By the end of that decade, the acres of mills and factories around the neighborhood were shuttered. As a result, many of the children who grew up in the years of Murray's review were raised in homes with unemployed fathers.

Meanwhile, these children were attending public schools with graduation rates of about 50 percent. Our schools accepted that because they were holding on to the outdated idea that young people could find good jobs even without 12 years of education.

Murray argues that the expansion of public welfare to respond to economic shifts enabled moral decay to take hold. As a result, Fishtowners failed to take advantage of the plethora of minimum-wage jobs available to them, which, he erroneously suggests, would put them above the federal poverty line.

What really happened is that when the economy changed, our education system didn't get the signals. It wasn't until 1983 that education and business leaders were sounding the alarm in "A Nation At Risk," a federal report that noted bluntly: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Still, it wasn't until 2000 that we as a nation finally adopted the principle that every child should graduate from high school prepared for a good job or college. And we are still miles from making good on that aspiration. When I moved to Fishtown, the local high school didn't even offer algebra; even today, not every student is required to take any mathematics courses beyond "general math."

Just plain dumb

Perhaps the most telling moment in Murray's book is when it essentially blames Fishtowners for the Catholic Church's decision - recently reversed - to close St. Laurentius and other nearby parish schools. Murray ignores the fact that these are institutional decisions that erode the common good, productivity, and prosperity. For him, individual virtue is the only source of our society's salvation.

Although Murray focuses on the declining moral fiber of Fishtowners, his argument comes down to the notion that my neighbors are just plain dumb, and likely to get dumber. But I think my neighbors are smart enough to know that no amount of marriage, honesty, industriousness, or religiosity will make them any more likely to find a job that pays enough to support their families.

Murray calls on us to understand that "the consequences are so bad that it's time to step back from the numbers and listen to the voices of the real people who live in the real Fishtown." As one of those real Fishtowners, I believe the problems of my neighbors can be solved by transforming our public schools, helping unemployed adults learn world-class skills, and adopting trade and foreign policies that create decent jobs in places like Fishtown across America.

Donna Cooper is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress and a former Pennsylvania secretary of policy and planning.

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