A review of Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, by Charles Murray
Advance copies of Losing Ground were must reading in the Old Executive Office Building last summer, for not since 1969, when Edward Banfield published The Unheavenly City, has a social scientist given conservative prejudices a better massage. Moreover, this attack upon the welfare policies of Lyndon Johnson’s administration adds to the intellectual veneer of being social scientific the considerable moral luster of being written by an ex-Poverty Warrior (see p. 278 n. 5, p. 293 n. 4, and p. 312).
Losing Ground’s subtitle is somewhat misleading: In the main, this book addresses the policies of the national government and elevates only those policies designed to improve the condition of “the poor” which originated after 1964 and before 1969. By identifying social policy with economic welfare policies for the less well-off, Murray shows that he participates wholly in the leading political superstition of our day, the irrational conviction that the excellence of a society is measured by the condition of its poor. In the grips of this superstition, social scientists, who are otherwise ignorant of English literature and loathe to quote it at all, much less authoritatively, cite Samuel Johnson’s opinion that civilization is measured by “a decent provision” for the poor as if it were the latest, federally sponsored statistical survey (see p. 16). Within the confines of this gross prejudice (i.e., supposing that civilization has nothing to do with human excellence or human happiness), Murray’s book is a good one. Viewed more objectively, it is a rehash of all the neo-conservative arguments about the War on Poverty which have been in the air since 1970. In fact, the book is far more interesting as a document of recent political history than as a contribution to social science.
Still, one has a duty to mention the two major contentions of Losing Ground. In the first place (Chs. 1-10), Murray contends that the War on Poverty did not reduce poverty, but that after 1964 the social conditions of the poor improved more slowly than before 1964, or even worsened: “Progress stopped coincidentally with the implementation of the Great Society’s social welfare programs” and “[h]uge increases in expenditures coincided with an end to progress” (p. 63). In particular, the conditions of what Murray calls “the disadvantaged,” by which he means young, black males (pp. 54-55), became markedly worse; for this group, unemployment and participation in the labor force skyrocketed, family life became unstable or nonexistent, criminal activity increased, and educational achievement decreased. Indeed, the title, “Losing Ground,” only applies precisely to the conditions of the disadvantaged relative to those of young, white males (see pp. 74-75).
The extreme relativity of Murray’s statistical measures ought to be emphasized. By poverty, Murray means-at base-officially defined poverty, which is income equal to three times the cost of a federally defined adequate diet. As Murray points out in an interesting footnote (pp. 270-72 n), this definition is problematic because it is arbitrary. Although official poverty did not decline as fast after the War on Poverty was declared as it had during Eisenhower’s presidency, “the War on Poverty had very nearly been won” ; by 1978 (p. 273). Accordingly, Murray’s concern is not with that “poverty” against which Lyndon Johnson declared war, but with “latent poverty,” which is Murray’s jargon for dependency upon government for income. Therefore, Murray’s first contention amounts to this: Official poverty has declined rather steadily over the past generation, but latent poverty, especially among the young, has skyrocketed.
Since Murray contends, in the second place (Chs. 11-17), that the War on Poverty caused the degraded, dependent conditions of the disadvantaged, and since the habits of a lifetime are usually established in youth, an appalling conclusion ought to be drawn from Losing Ground: Even by Samuel Johnson’s standard, the War on Poverty was barbarous.
Murray does not draw this conclusion. “We”-Murray’s overly familiar way of referring to himself, his readers, and other Poverty Warriors-were “generous people” with “the simplest, and most benign of objectives” (pp. 236, 15). Certainly not barbarians! Unfortunately, that same “we,” by which he also means “the intelligentsia . . . the upper echelons of (in no particular order of importance) academia, journalism, publishing, and the vast network of foundations, institutes, and research centers that has been woven into partnership with government during the last thirty years” (p. 42), were blinded by “elite wisdom.” According to Murray, the “elite wisdom” of the 1960s and 1970s held that “the system” is responsible for the condition of the poor and disadvantaged. This wisdom is to be distinguished from “popular wisdom,” which appreciates self-reliance and individual responsibility and which is “the inarticulate constellation of worries and suspicions that helped account for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1960.” On the basis of their wisdom, the intelligentsia preferred policies that relieved the poor and disadvantaged of the responsibility for improving their condition. So “the system” would take care of them, and “gaps [in the social indicators] would narrow” (p. 136). “It would be inconceivable,” says our author, speaking from his point of view during the 1960s, “to predict anything else.”
Murray does not quite say that the intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s was the victim of a system that kept it from seeing social and political reality. However, he does ask, in effect, that the architects and administrators and evaluators of the War on Poverty be excused for the evils and expenses they visited upon their innocent fellow citizens. Murray seems to suppose that social scientists can be forgiven for being more ignorant of social reality than Archie Bunker, so long as they were good-hearted and disinterested. Besides, Losing Ground may be taken to show that today’s intelligentsia is older and more experienced, albeit no less generous or enlightened than the Poverty Warriors. Today’s intelligentsia can see the consequences of their policies and confess their failures. All that they ask is that their motives not be impugned.
Ought America’s failure to make proper provision for its poor be seen as the unintended consequences of well-intentioned, if stupid, social scientists and welfare bureaucrats?
Murray contradicts himself in explaining the action of the intelligentsia in the 1960s and 1970s. At first he says it was merely ignorant of social reality; it did not understand that putting people on the dole would make them dependent; it did not understand that dependent people were likely to be socially and economically irresponsible, if not criminal. However, Murray is compelled to admit that the failures of the War on Poverty were well known within the intelligentsia.
Beginning in the mid-sixties, welfare bureaucrats and other advocates of the War on Poverty knew that their pet policies were failing: “the loss of innocence came early” (pp. 36-39). The evidence mounted thereafter. Therefore, on the substantial evidence of Losing Ground, it is ludicrous to claim, as Murray and other neo-conservatives do, that the growth of the dependency of the American poor, the rewarding of morally irresponsible, anti-social, and criminal behavior by federal welfare programs, and the squandering of billions in the name of the poor were unintended consequences of good-hearted social reformers. Rather, what Murray says about employment programs for ex-cons is true of most federal welfare policies, “To some extent, whether they worked or not was irrelevant” (p. 39).
It was irrelevant, because the intelligentsia was not interested in understanding or improving social reality. On the contrary, the intelligentsia was blind to social reality because it was intent upon “slay[ing] the folk belief that welfare makes people shiftless” (p. 150). And it wished to slay that belief because of its political passion to blame “the system” for every human ill. The intelligentsia was not just “elitist,” as Murray contends, for to blame the system is really just to blame democracy. The intellectuals were antidemocratic, insofar as they denied the capacity of the citizenry for self-government; e.g., by claiming that the American people are fundamentally racist, selfish, filled with unarticulate fears, etc. Accordingly, the intelligentsia’s preferred policies have been anti-democratic, insofar as they destroy the capacity for self-government in millions. Murray contradicts himself because he does not see-or rather, because he takes absolutely for granted-the profoundly oligarchic passion of the intelligentsia.
That is why he is so charmingly naive about the self-interest of the intelligentsia. His claim that Poverty Warriors and the rest of the intelligentsia were “generous people” (pp. 15-55, cf. p. 235) would be quite silly if it were not so sincerely believed by so many. Is it generosity to encourage government to give away other people’s money? No more than it is generous to squander anyone’s wealth, even one’s own. Every dollar represents the time spent earning it, a piece of someone’s life, and to waste it is to waste human life. Further, it is the opposite of generosity to use other people’s money to buy the political gratitude of the poor. If what Murray says about the failure of the War on Poverty is correct, only illiberality and greed, not concern with the public interest, keeps alive the welfare-education-media complex of federally funded institutes and research centers.
Murray has shocked the Washington intelligentsia by doubting the efficacy of most of contemporary national economic welfare programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Unemployment Insurance, Job Corps, and so on. However, Murray nowhere proposes the abolition of these programs, much less any moderate reform of them. On the contrary, he believes they will continue for the foreseeable future. As we have seen, he does not blame, he even praises, those who will continue them. So, at best, Murray’s book serves the purpose of deflating the exaggerated claims of the intelligentsia on behalf of “the poor.” In other words, Losing Ground is useful in President Reagan’s current attempt to hold down the increase of domestic spending.
At its best, Murray offers “a synthesis of [elite and popular] wisdoms” to his readers (p. 146). More fundamental reforms of the American welfare state will have to await the formation of a new intelligentsia.