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Losing Ground’: An Exchange

In response to:

How Poor Are the Poor? from the May 9, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

Christopher Jenck’s review of Losing Ground [NYR, May 9] moved between a critique of the numbers and a discussion of some of the moral issues raised by Losing Ground. The discussion of the moral issues was by far the more important, in my view, but the critique of the numbers is what most readers seem to have remembered from the review. To respond to all of Jenck’s points would require another book. I will use these few paragraphs to deal with Jenck’s contradiction of Losing Ground’s basic thesis that the working–aged poor and disadvantaged have, in fact, been losing ground.

After opening with a curious error identifying me as a “former journalist,” Jencks makes another, more serious error that enables him to make his case. He says he will demonstrate the following proposition: “If we look at material conditions, we find that, Murray notwithstanding, the position of poor people showed marked improvement after 1965, which is the year that Murray selects as his ‘turning point.’ ” For purposes of making this argument, he puts aside the trends in employment, victimization by crime, education, and family structure as apparently not germane to “material conditions,” and focuses instead on poverty and health.

The error? I never identified 1965 as a turning point. Losing Ground does not suggest that the country began going to pot as soon as Lyndon Johnson came to office. The reform period spanned several years, and reforms seldom produce instantaneous effects. The only time I generalized about the timing of the “turns for the worse” across different indicators was for summary purposes in chapter 10, where I wrote, “I have referred periodically throughout the last six chapters to the ‘steepening trendline’ or the ‘unexpected change’ in the late 1960s.” (Emphasis added.)

It would have been especially foolish of me to identify 1965 as a turning point for poverty after writing a chapter documenting in great narrative detail, along with five graphs, the post-1965 reductions in poverty. But it is only by saying that I used 1965 as a turning point that Jencks is able to make statements such as “At least in economic terms then, Murray is wrong: the poor made a lot of progress after 1965.” Or: “Contrary to what Murray claims, ‘net’ poverty declined almost as fast after 1965 as it had before.” The contentions he is refuting do not exist.

Then Jencks writes that “…the decline in poverty after 1965, unlike the decline in poverty before 1965, occurred despite unfavorable economic conditions.” This turns history on its head. The great bulk of the post-1965 decline occurred during the spectacularly favorable years from 1965–69, the best years for the economy since the Korean War, and all of the decline had occurred before the oil shock at the end of 1973. As officially measured, poverty went down 5.2 percentage points from 1965–69, declined an additional 1.0 percentage point to its low in 1973, and then increased 1.9 percentage points from 1973, and then increased 1.9 percentage points from 1973–80. As measured after in-kind benefits are included, the reductions were more evenly spaced from 1965 to 1972, but the reductions ended at the same time, before the oil shock. To my knowledge, no one engaged in analyzing the effects of in-kind transfers on the poverty statistics (including the leading authority, Timothy Smeeding), is arguing otherwise.

More generally, Jencks’ critique of the poverty numbers tries to make a case that stubbornly resists being made. The “material condition” of the working-aged poor and disadvantaged—the population of concern in Losing Ground—had been improving fairly steadily during the post-war period as measured on a variety of dimensions, of which poverty was one, until the 1960s, and then things did, indeed, take a turn for the worse. This statement does not mean that none of the disadvantaged gained. For example, blacks who stayed in the labor force and formed two-parent households continued to make great economic progress, and Losing Ground uses a chapter to document that happy trend. But otherwise, the picture is bleak.

Even on the health statistics, where by all logic we should have made major progress, one who would tell a success story must select the indicators and metrics gingerly. Jencks chose to express the gap between black and white as the difference between the black and white means. If instead one plots black mean life expectancy as a percentage of the white mean, the relative improvement for blacks from 1965–80 goes from 90 to 93 percent of the white mean, only continuing, not accelerating, a historical trend going back to the 1930s. If the black infant morality rate is reported as a percentage of the white rate, it has to be noted that in 1965 the black infant morality rate was 194 percent of the white rate and that in 1980 it was 195 percent of the white rate—which doesn’t look much like progress. If one adds another obvious and extremely important health indicator, low birthweight babies, one has to deal with an increase in the black rate from 188 percent of the white rate in 1965 to 219 percent in 1980. Numbers, even about health, are indeed tricky.

Charles Murray

Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

New York City

Christopher Jencks replies:

I regret my error in describing Charles Murray as a former journalist, but his other complaints seem to me as misleading as his book.

Consider the question of whether Losing Ground identified 1965 as a “turning point.” In Chapter 2, Murray asserts that:

In only three years, from 1964 to 1967—what I shall refer to as the “reform”—social policy went from the dream of ending the dole to the institution of permanent income transfers that embraced not only the recipients of the dole but large new segments of the population.

In Chapter 10 he summarizes the effect of these changes in social policy:

The proposition underlying the last six chapters is that things not only got worse for the poor and the disadvantaged beginning (in most cases) in the last half of the 1960s, they got much worse than they “should have gotten” under the economic and social conditions that prevailed in the society at large.

He summarizes this alleged change for the worse by contrasting trends from 1950 to 1965 with trends from 1965 to 1980. For most purposes, in short, Murray treats 1965 as a “turning point.”

But there are exceptions. When trends from 1965 to 1980 do not support his overall argument, Murray substitutes trends from other periods. He then writes as if changing the time period had no bearing on his larger argument. Trends in poverty are a case in point. If we contrast 1950, 1965, and 1980, as I did in my review, we find that economic conditions improved more between 1950 and 1965 than between 1965 and 1980, but that poverty nonetheless fell almost as much in the second period as in the first. I argued that the material condition of the poor improved more than it “should have” because of the very changes in social policy that Murray deplores. In order to discredit this argument Murray divides the years from 1965 to 1980 into two subperiods: 1965–1973 and 1973–1980. He then rightly notes that while poverty dropped dramatically from 1965 to 1973, it stopped dropping after 1973. Indeed, it even rose slightly if you use the “official” measure.

But changing the period under discussion completely changes the meaning of the trend Murray reports. Remember that we are trying to assess the impact of reforms that Murray places between 1964 and 1967. Remember, too, that the two most obvious explanations for a change in the poverty rate, either from 1973 to 1980 or in any other period, are changes in current economic conditions and changes in current government benefits for the needy. Now consider what happened from 1965 to 1980. From 1965 to 1973 both economic trends and changes in government benefits made it progressively easier to escape from poverty. Unemployment hovered around 5 percent, real wages rose 16 percent, cash transfers to the poor rose even faster than wages, and noncash benefits—mainly Food Stamps and Medicaid—went from virtually zero to roughly their present level. From 1973 to 1980, in contrast, escaping from poverty got harder. Unemployment averaged about 7 percent, real wages fell 9 percent, cash transfers to the poor lagged far behind inflation, and eligibility for Food Stamps and Medicaid stopped expanding.

Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that poverty fell dramatically from 1965 to 1973. Nor is it surprising that poverty leveled off or increased after 1973. Murray’s notion that the reforms of the mid-1960s had a negative effect on the material condition of the poor a decade later is redundant.

Murray cannot have it both ways. If the accounting period is to run from 1965 to 1980, as it usually does in Losing Ground, he cannot argue that social policy made the poor worse off in material terms, because the material condition of the poor improved dramatically over this interval. If the accounting period is to run from 1973 to 1980, as Murray wants it to for this particular set of statistics, he must face the fact that, at least according to the Census statistics on which the “official” poverty count is based, everyone lost ground after 1973. The typical American family’s real pretax money income dropped 6 percent from 1973 to 1980. The same thing happened to the richest 5 percent of American families. Why, then, should we expect the poor to have done better, especially when cash transfers to the poor were lagging behind both wages and inflation?

Murray’s use of health statistics is also misleading. Consider infant mortality. In 1965 infant mortality was twice as high among blacks as among whites. We managed to halve infant mortality among both blacks and whites over the next fifteen years. Murray’s letter suggests that this doesn’t really imply “progress” because infant mortality was still twice as high among blacks as among whites in 1980. This is misleading on two counts. First, it is misleading to suggest that blacks have not made progress simply because whites have also made progress. Second, even if you change the question and ask who benefited “the most” from these changes, it is the absolute reduction in mortality that matters, not the percentage reduction. Ask any mother: if the risk that her baby will die is high, halving the risk will be worth a lot to her. If the risk is low, halving it will be worth far less. If you then apply this logic to black and white mothers, it should be obvious that black mothers gained more than white mothers between 1965 and 1980.

Murray would be the first to make all these points if they supported his broader argument. He should have the wisdom to accept them even when they require him to narrow his argument. If he wants to make a case against liberal efforts to help the poor, he should concentrate on the social conditions that really did deteriorate after 1965, such as school achievement, crime, men’s willingness to support their children, and employment rates for some groups of men. Scholars have been trying to link trends in each of these areas to specific policy changes for more than a decade, with only modest success. But at least the trends began—or accelerated—at more or less the right time for Murray’s argument, and the hypothesis that they were unintended byproducts of trying to do good is plausible on its face. The notion that giving the poor more food, more medical care, and more money made them worse off in material terms is, in contrast, a cancard for which there is no good evidence, either in Losing Ground or elsewhere.

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