How Poor Are the Poor?

Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980

by Charles Murray
Basic, 323 pp., $23.95

From 1946 until 1964 the conservative politicians who dominated Congress thought that the federal government might be capable of transforming American society, but they saw this as a danger to be avoided at almost any cost. For the following twelve years the liberals who dominated Congress thought that the federal government should try to cure almost every ill Americans were heir to. After 1976 the political climate in Congress changed again. The idea that government action could solve—or even ameliorate—social problems became unfashionable, and federal spending was increasingly seen as waste. As a result, federal social-welfare spending, which had grown from 5 percent of the nation’s gross national product in 1964 to 11 percent in 1976, has remained stuck at 11 percent since 1976.

Conservative politicians and writers are now trying to shift the prevailing view again, by arguing that federal programs are not just ineffective but positively harmful. The “problem,” in this emerging view, is not only that federal programs cost a great deal of money that the citizenry would rather spend on video recorders and Caribbean vacations, but that such programs hurt the very people they are intended to help.

Losing Ground, by Charles Murray, is the most persuasive statement so far of this new variation on Social Darwinism. Murray is a former journalist who has also done contract research for the government and is now associated with the Manhattan Institute, which raises corporate money to support conservative authors such as George Gilder and Thomas Sowell. His name has been invoked repeatedly in Washington’s current debates over the budget—not because he has provided new evidence on the effects of particular government programs, but because he is widely presumed to have proven that federal social policy as a whole made the poor worse off over the past twenty years. Murray’s popularity is easy to understand. He writes clearly and eloquently. He cites many statistics, and he makes his statistics seem easy to understand. Most important of all, his argument provides moral legitimacy for budget cuts that many politicians want to make in order to reduce the federal deficit.

Murray summarizes this argument as follows:

The complex story we shall unravel comes down to this:

Basic indicators of well-being took a turn for the worse in the 1960s, most consistently and most drastically for the poor. In some cases, earlier progress slowed; in other cases mild deterioration accelerated; in a few instances advance turned into retreat. The trendlines on many of the indicators are—literally—unbelievable to people who do not make a profession of following them.

The question is why….

The easy hypotheses—the economy, changes in demographics, the effects of Vietnam or Watergate or racism—fail as explanations. As often as not, taking them into account only increases the mystery.

Nor does the explanation lie in idiosyncratic failures of craft. It is not just that we sometimes administered good programs improperly, or that sound concepts sometimes were converted to operations incorrectly. It …

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Letters

Losing Ground’: An Exchange October 24, 1985