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Maggie M. Ethridge

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From Inside the Fishbowl

Posted: 03/12/2012 7:35 pm

Writers around the web are responding to the ideas in Charles Murray's newest book, Coming Apart. Bradley Wilcox responds here in the Wall Street Journal in agreement with Mr. Murray's basic tenet -- that 'lower class' white people are losing the core values that have kept our country industrious and healthy, and marriage is one of the first casualties. Mr. Wilcox leaves out the idea (and argument) that Mr. Murray proposes; government and economy have nothing to do with the success or failure of marriages for these people, according to him, it's all personal. The political is the personal when it governs how far hard work can take us -- it used to buy a home and guarantee a future, now it rents a condo and promises nothing -- and how much control we have over our health and our children's lives.

I was married inside of the construct of problems that Charles Murray illuminates in Coming Apart: not bound by the rituals or morality of religion, having had children out of wedlock, and out of work. I was (am) Mr. Murray's unnamed 'lower class' -- split apart from successful, cognitively blessed America into the make-believe Fishtown, where the men claim disability in droves and the women have children that they cannot "meticulously raise" like their sisters over in the cognitive elite can. According to Mr. Murray, the government and ergo economy have nothing to do with this class crisis, this disintegration of marriage.

Let us take one day inside the life of a "Fish", and illuminate its guts.

Fish wakes up for work and grabs breakfast for herself and her two children. Fish drops her oldest child off at elementary school with a kiss, then her youngest child at a home daycare she is seriously concerned about; the woman in charge seems to be increasingly stressed out and Fish imagines that she even smelled marijuana on her jacket last week, but she cannot afford a regular preschool and finding a new home daycare at these prices within driving distance has been impossible. Baby cries and clings to Fish, snot dripping down her nose. Fish holds her for as long as she can. At work, Fish is reprimanded for not completing her work last week; although she is paid the same amount she was last year, she does almost twice the work after her company did a round of firing. Fish dropped her company insurance so that she can take home the $100 copay she was giving up every month, so that she could pay for her older daughter's English tutoring -- eldest had been failing English and Fish's help at home in the evenings was not enough. The school does not offer any free tutoring programs, only a Homework Club that is a roomful of children working on computers. Eldest has been coming home crying and saying she hates school because she failed a test or wrote a paragraph without punctuation.

Fish is sick. Fish has what she suspects is a severe sinus infection, and no access to antibiotics. In addition to this, her hips have been aching and hurting so badly at night she often wakes two or three times in pain, even with Advil. Fish's husband works full-time but has no company insurance, and he has high blood pressure. Sometimes Fish can't sleep because she is laying in the dark next to her husband trying not to think about him dropping dead of a heart attack because they couldn't afford health insurance. Fish picks her children up at the end of the day and asks her husband to run by the grocery store. She knows her children feel, look and behave better on a diet of whole, organic foods, but cannot afford a $13 pack of organic chicken or the $5 gallon of organic milk. Fish has given up all extras minus her coffees -- no new clothing, no manicures, movies, dinners out -- she and her husband do not exchange Christmas gifts or much of anything for birthdays.

Fish's husband comes home and Fish is exhausted and ill with pain from her sinus headache. Fish and her husband were supposed to talk about the budget for the week, their daughter's daycare situation and if they should give up cable, but Fish can't do it. She has a long, exhausting day ahead of her tomorrow, and still has to reply to two urgent emails: one regarding possible free medication from a friend, and the other information about reducing blood pressure naturally. Fish sits in front of the monitor. She hears her husband talking to the girls. She can't remember the last time they could breathe.

"I'm not a smart man, Jenny"... but I can see that there are four definitive areas in this scenario where a better economy and government support would directly and positively impact the lives of Mr. & Mrs. Fish and therefore directly impact the health of their marriage. It is not a leap to hypothesize that supporting a healthy, robust 'under-class' directly supports marriage, and that if more marriages came out from underneath suffocating circumstantial stress, more marriages could survive -- and then Fishtown wouldn't be so fishy. If I.Q. is nearly as important as Mr. Charles believes, then supporting marriages, which is supporting the children in those marriages, would increase the children's IQ: chronic stress and nutritional deficiencies not impacting the ongoing birth of a brain.

Perhaps it is not the lower class who have dramatically changed values, but the governmental community that has shifted its priorities from a strong, working class and healthy family life to big business and big money. Perhaps to gain big for America, we need to use Occam's razor: Give us healthy food we can afford to buy, safe and affordable care in which to place our babies, funded school programs so our children can be successful in school and keep up with the 'elite' and medical coverage that doesn't leave us destitute.

Until then, I am ten years later still married, and we are still in the fishbowl -- our children placed high on our shoulders.