Commentary Magazine


Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, by Charles Murray

Government & the Poor

Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980.
by Charles Murray.
Basic Books. 323 pp. $23.95.

Charles Murray’s closely argued book is a bold and timely indictment of the past twenty years of American social policy. On trial stands the whole array of federally defined, designed, delivered, controlled, and financed efforts known collectively as the War on Poverty. In demonstrating how and why the most massive governmental intervention in American history failed to erase the “scandalous blemish” of poverty from the midst of the world’s most affluent society, and how, in the final analysis, its main achievement may have been the institutionalization and expansion of what it had set out to destroy, Murray’s book also constitutes a brilliant critique of the liberal vision of the welfare state. It has already attracted much attention and controversy; if it succeeds in arousing the nation to rethink the direction and purpose of our social policy, it will have made a lasting contribution.

Central to Murray’s discussion is the fundamental shift that began to take place in the early 1960′s in the “long-standing national consensus about what it means to be poor, who the poor are, and what they are owed by the rest of society.” No longer content with offering “decent provision” to those whose misfortune was not of their own making, a new national consensus, or perhaps more precisely a consensus among the nation’s intellectual elite, saw it as government’s role to assume responsibility for “helping Americans to help themselves.”

Once the new consensus was formed, it developed its own dynamic with awesome velocity. In no time, poverty itself began to be blamed on “the system.” Writers like Michael Harrington set out to make a forceful case for the existence of “structural poverty”; poverty, it was said, is embedded within the very nature of capitalism. This meant that the traditional liberal recipe for fighting poverty—economic growth—no longer applied; sweeping changes were needed in the way income was distributed.

Calls for such changes found a wide hearing, especially in the wake of the riots of the late 60′s. A medley of groups—the increasingly powerful band of policy experts with their can-do optimism; regiments of a new breed of lawyers purportedly serving the public interest; traditional do-gooders; the media—joined in making their own unique contributions to the newly received wisdom that poverty was not the fault of the individual but of the system, and that only a guaranteed “equality of outcome” would eliminate it. Translation into action quickly followed: a “legislative blitzkrieg” of anti-poverty bills, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, public-housing programs, manpower training, ever-expanding entitlement programs, and so on.

Twenty years have gone by since the clarion call to wage war on poverty, and stocktaking is in order. In one respect Murray’s appraisal holds no great surprises, for in recent years there already has formed a broad though somewhat vague realization that this much-heralded domestic crusade has been a failure. The dire consequences have become too tangible and obvious to be ignored. But no one, I think, has chronicled in greater detail and more persuasively the dimensions of the failure, or has documented as carefully the linkage between particular interventionist measures and their direct, if unintended, contrary results.

Particularly disturbing is Murray’s devastating analysis of what has happened precisely to those on whose behalf the whole battle was waged in the first place. “The number of people living in poverty,” Murray writes, “stopped declining just as the public-assistance program budgets and the rate of increase in those budgets were highest.” Not only is poverty still with us, but things have gotten worse. The data boggle the mind.

Some examples: For a long time the proportion of blacks participating in the labor market had been smaller than that of whites, but before 1965 the gap was slowly decreasing; since the War on Poverty began, the gap has widened disproportionately. In education, in spite of enormous progress made in high-school and college enrollments, the measured educational achievement of young poor black Americans has not only declined, but “as of 1980 the gap in educational achievement between black and white students leaving high school was so great that it threatened to defeat any other attempts to narrow the economic differences separating blacks from whites.” Black violent crime soared in the late 1960′s and 1970′s, and the danger that a black would be a victim of violent crime was much larger in 1972 than it was in 1965. The black family is in shambles; the percentage of infants born to black single women went from 17 in 1950 to 55 in 1980, with teenage mothers contributing disproportionately to the increase.

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What happened? Murray argues that all the dire results that can be witnessed today can be traced to the changes wrought by the new social policy of the 60′s in the attitudes and behavior of America’s poor. In brief, the policies mandated by the new idea of structurally-caused poverty discouraged self-reliance and rewarded dependence. “Status distinctions among the poor,” Murray writes, had traditionally “begun with the assumption that people are responsible for their actions, and, specifically, responsible for taking care of themselves and their families as best as they could.” Once, however, it was assumed that the “system” was to be blamed when a person was out of work, it was an easy step to “the belief that the system is even to blame when a person neglects spouse and family. . . .” In this manner, status was stripped from people who were holding menial jobs and supporting their families, and a strong incentive was provided for abandoning both job and family.

“When large numbers of people begin to behave differently from ways they behaved before,” Murray writes, “my first assumption is that they do so for good reason.” In other words, the poor, in becoming more rather than less dependent on government, were behaving quite rationally. As a consequence of the new mode of government intervention, it simply became “easier to get along without a job. It was easier for a man to have a baby without being responsible for it, for a woman to have a baby without a husband. It was easier to get away with crime.” And so on. From which it follows that, if our intention is to offer the poor a way out of poverty, we must abandon the pattern of the immediate past, which positively encouraged people to fail, and devise policies that will help to restore the traditional emphases on individual effort, self-reliance, and conventional morality.

In the final part of his book Murray presents his own ideas for accomplishing this objective. His three major proposals relate to education, civil rights, and social welfare. In education he strongly advocates a turn to a universal voucher system. In the area of civil rights he affirms the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but would repeal every bit of subsequent legislation and overturn the court decisions that require differential treatment according to race. In the area of public welfare his general recipe is for getting government out of it. Aside from support for the “truly needy,” unemployment insurance, and the establishment of a safety net on the local (but not the federal) level, he is inclined to scrap the entire welfare and income-support structure for persons of working age. Aid to Families With Dependent Children, Medicare, food stamps, and the rest, all would have to go.

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What can be said about these proposals? Murray insists that morality is on his side here, and he may well be right. After all, if these social programs are indeed harmful, who could morally justify their continuation? My problems with Murray are on a different level, having to do with his understanding of the nature of individual and social life.

Both in his analysis of what went wrong and in his proposals for a cure, Murray opts for a “rational decision-making” model of human behavior. Disregarding cultural, social, and psychological factors, he insists that the behavior of the poor can be understood on rational economic grounds alone. I doubt, however, whether such a model will go far in explaining the actions of any individual or group. It certainly does not explain those of my own children and students, middle-class all and supposedly endowed with ample portions of rationality. I find it no less difficult to accept that, for instance, a teenage girl gets herself pregnant primarily out of some rational economic calculus of costs and benefits.

Murray contends that there are real limits to the ability of any government to help the poor, and this is demonstrably true. But he errs in my opinion—again, both in his analysis and in his policy proposals—by focusing narrowly on just two players, the individual and the government. His political philosophy (which, as far as I can make out, is conservative with strong libertarian overtones) leads him to exclude from the drama of social life all those institutions that throughout history have mediated between the individual and government: the neighborhood, the church, voluntary groupings, and the like. And since, in Murray’s scheme, government is to be removed, this leaves the individual isolated and alone. Are we then to rid ourselves of the ill-conceived Great Society programs, with their extreme notions of “individual rights” which turned out to be so harmful to the fabric of social life, only to replace them with an equally atomistic conception in which individuals will supposedly do better simply because they will be free to maximize their interests in the marketplace?

To my mind, the great failure of the War on Poverty derived precisely from its disregard of the natural groupings, the “small platoons,” in Edmund Burke’s felicitous phrase, that are so important to individuals. It is out of a concern for the preservation and enhancement of those groupings that I am considerably less willing than Charles Murray to scrap all social programs. A good case can be made, I think, for the continuation of some, like Head Start. Although the educational achievement of Head Start is not as evident as some would like, it has nonetheless been of considerable value to families and neighborhoods suffering from the social devastation so well described by Murray. It has provided, for many, a strong sense of community and of purpose.

Similarly, anyone familiar with the inner workings of the black community cannot fail to be impressed by the enormous vitality of the many self-help arrangements demonstrating enterprise, common sense, and the enduring hold of traditional values. To be sure, some of these activities may have become overly dependent on official America, but they need hardly remain so forever. It has been shown, for example, that the energies of street gangs can be redirected to socially useful ends; public funds can provide incentives for this. Self-help endeavors have never been given a chance, certainly not by the 60′s poverty crusaders. I would argue that we cannot afford to bypass them, since they express better than anything else the desires of actual people living in actual communities.

In the coming years we will need more than ever a coherent social policy. The Democratic party continues to dream of a return to the programs of the 60′s, despite the fact that the ideas which inspired those programs have been thoroughly discredited. As for the Republicans, at the moment they seem more preoccupied with budget-cutting than with devising policies that might capture the imagination and the support of the American people. The field is thus open. In the emerging debate, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground will almost certainly become an indispensable point of reference; my own hope is that his analysis of what went wrong will win the widespread credence it deserves, even if his policy proposals need not be taken as the final word on what it is humanly possible to do for the poor.

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