Ending Welfare As We Knew It
December 19, 2005
There's no better proof of the adage that ideas have consequences than Charles Murray's Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 19501980. The magisterial 1984 classic provides a double measure of evidence: in its argument, and in the fact that it changed the world.
Murray's case is this: During the mid-1960s, elite opinion about the causes of poverty suddenly altered, with the radical abruptness of a scientific-paradigm shift and the arbitrariness of a change in fashion. Whereas once everyone had agreed that America was a land of opportunity for all, and that poverty could result only from indolence or vice (or, in a few cases, from misfortune that merited succor), the elites had come to believe that "poverty was not the fault of the individual but of the system," as Murray says. In particular, pervasive white racism was to blame for black poverty (blacks making up a disproportional part of the poor), and racism was equally to blame for the kind of black vice and dysfunction so explosively on display in the inner-city riots of the mid-Sixties. Whites therefore had to make amends by providing blacks not with equality of opportunity, which deforming racism had made a cruel impossibility, but with equality of results. And so a revolution in social policy followed a revolution in belief.
Massive income transfers ensued, as welfare benefits mushroomed and eligibility requirements loosened, and as a number of programsMedicaid, SSI, food stamps, subsidized housingramped up. Punishment for crime became more lax, because (the new orthodoxy held) "crime is a response to exploitation and poverty." Public education was dumbed down, and school discipline evaporated, because traditional standards of study and behavior were deemed an imposition of white middle-class values and a violation of students' due-process rights.
The result of these mutually reinforcing developments was catastrophic: Poverty became engrained and intergenerational among the "underclass"a predominantly black subgroup of the poor, among whom the rates of welfare dependency, crime, illegitimacy, school dropout, and non-work skyrocketed. The explanation for these pathologies, Murray argued, had nothing to do with the zeitgeist or a breakdown in the work ethic or racial differences. "All were results that could have been predicted . . . from the changes that social policy made in the rewards and penalties . . . that govern human behavior. All were rational responses to changes in the rules of the game. . . ." In particular, Murray said, illegitimacy and non-work soared because the total package of welfare benefits paid to women for having an out-of-wedlock child came to be greater than the take-home pay from a minimum-wage job. "From an economic point of view, getting married is dumb." In the same vein, crime went up because the risks it entailed went down, and school failure rose because the disincentives to slacking off and acting up shrank to a vanishing point.
Clearly, Murray argued, we should stop doing what makes things worse. And the quickest, surest, biggest step we could take in that direction would be "scrapping the entire federal welfare and income-support structure for working-aged persons. . . ."
Murray set forth his case in prose of elegant lucidity and modest reasonableness, buttressed with rigorous social-scientific evidence (including a multiplicity of graphs and an appendix of 26 tables of data). At every point, he frankly acknowledged the limitations of the data, and he entertained other possible interpretations of the numbers. He understood very well that data are not self-explanatory, that correlation is not causation, and that in complex matters data make sense only if an organizing intelligence constructs a persuasive narrative to explain them. The power of his account, relentlessly logical and faithful to the facts, changed the conversation on welfare. Americans began to consider the once unthinkable possibility that welfare was grievously harming the very people it was supposed to help.
Within a decade, national opinion had reversed, and Murray's idea had become the new orthodoxy, though of course welfare's advocates fought (and continue to fight) a rearguard action every inch of the way. But in 1996, after twice vetoing welfare reform, President Clinton gave way to overwhelming national sentiment in favor of it, signing into law a workfare program that made welfare support temporary rather than perpetual, and no longer an entitlement.
Not only did Losing Ground have the distinction of being the "book that many people believe begat welfare reform," as the New York Times described it when the momentous bill passed, but Murray's argument also had the virtue of being right, as subsequent experience proved. Since the bill became law, the national welfare rolls have declined by half. Though even so distinguished an observer as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had warned that reform would mean millions of children starving on the streets, exactly the opposite has occurred: The child-poverty rate has fallen to its lowest level in recorded history, with 2.3 million fewer kids in poverty today than in 1996. Welfare clients have been going to work, and they have been earning a living.
But one key implication of Murray's argument proved false. If welfare really were an "incentive" for women to have out-of-wedlock babies, welfare reform should have produced a decline in illegitimacy. It didn't, however: Almost 70 percent of black children continue to be born out of wedlock.
And this stubborn and startling fact points to Losing Ground's one weakness. Murray's social-scientific thinking makes human behavior a matter only of incentives and disincentives, rather than of values and beliefs. Like Skinnerian psychology, which treats behavior as no more than a phenomenon of stimulus and responseand which displays no curiosity about the organism that converts these inputs into outputs, or how and why it does sosocial scientists don't inquire deeply into the nature of the human beings whose behavior is their subject. People aren't pigeons or protozoa: Their actions spring from a worldview, a set of beliefs or attitudes about what is right or praiseworthy or meaningful. The reason women did not have illegitimate children in such numbers before the mid-Sixties was not that welfare was stingier, though it was, but that out-of-wedlock childbearing (along with out-of-wedlock sex) carried a stigma, and nice girlspoor as well as richdidn't want their families and neighbors to think ill of them, and didn't want to think ill of themselves. It took a broad cultural change, emphasizing sexual liberation and downplaying the stigma of single-parent childrearing, to bring about the explosion in underclass illegitimacy, and it will take a broad cultural changa change in the zeitgeistto reverse the trend.
It turns out that ideas have consequences in an even more profound sense than Murray's splendid book imagined.
Mr. Magnet is the editor of City Journal and the author of, among other books, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass.
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