Charles Murray: Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980; Basic Books; New York.

Charles Murray’s book is a study of some of the biggest, and perhaps the least excusable, social problems facing American society. Losing Ground is based on a mass of data, and its message is clear and unmistakable: the benevolent social policies adopted in the 1960’s have not merely failed, have not even simply made a bad situation worse—they have had the effect of reversing favorable trends. American society’s real, if undeclared, ‘war on poverty,” which was being won in the post-World War II era and as late as the mid-l960’s, was lost—and by the very people who made it a “declared” war.

In 1950 about 30 percent of the American people, by current official definitions, were below the poverty line. This was reduced to about 13 percent by 1968. In 1980 that percent age remained the same, and by every possible index, that 13 percent lived lives that were worse, perhaps far worse, than the lives that were lived by most poor people in 1950 or 1968. They were more insecure, more drug-ridden, and more demoralized than ever.

These results, Murray shows, were not due just to the bad administration of basically good programs, but to a basic “strategic error” in the formulation of virtually all policies. This “error,” how ever, was the expression of a deep seated change in values and ideas among intellectuals, policymakers, and the opinion-molding strata of our society. In short, social policies in numerous areas—welfare, crime control, and education—changed the “rules of the game” for the poor, especially for those trying to escape their poverty. New rules were imposed that made it “profitable for the poor to behave in the short-term in wavs that were destructive in the long-term.” The realm of welfare was vastly expanded—and profoundly changed—as the distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor was obliterated. Indeed, the very idea of individual responsibility, as far as the poor were concerned, was invalidated. As Murray demonstrated, it actually became more profitable to go on welfare than to work, in many circumstances. Crime, especially juvenile crime, became less risky and more profitable.

Being an underclass illiterate did not, of course, become more profitable than being a responsible member of the middle class. But the most tangible, immediate incentives which cause young poor people to learn, work,  and abide by the law were  eliminated.  We  are a customed to hearing social policy and welfare discussed in terms that stress the transfer of economic assets from the well-off to the poor. In fact, much of the economic transfer is from well-off people to other well-off people (i.e., those who run social programs). But far more important, Murray suggests, are the transfers which take away noneconomic assets such as personal safety from the “deserving poor” and leave them at the mercy of the undeserving poor.

Though  Murray at  first seems to accept the claim that the change in attitude in the l960’s was inspired by genuine moral fervor and that it was morally superior to the “complacency in the face of want” of the l950’s, he ultimately rejects this notion. Not only did the policies fail—”what we did was wrong on moral grounds, however admirable our intentions may have been.” As Murray himself notes, the results that he found were a surprise and a shock to social scientists and policymakers. Yet, they could have been predicted on the basis of what he calls the “popular wisdom.” To many ordinary persons, it was apparent that people need both incentives and disincentives, that people are neither naturally moral, nor morally equal, that a distinction must and can be made between the deserving and the undeserving. No doubt these notions have sometimes been misapplied or been used as disguise for callousness. But their truth has now been verified by 20 years of costly experience and experiment. cc