Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 by Charles Murray

by | Jan 27, 2002 | Books

Murray's book shows how the rise of the welfare state over the past few decades has impoverished the lives of the very people it purports to help.

Murray’s book shows how the rise of the welfare state over the past few decades has impoverished the lives of the very people it purports to help. He finds that the poor and the blacks have been rapidly “losing ground” following enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the “War on Poverty” of the have been doing so precisely in proportion to their eligibility for the various social programs.

During the 15 years prior to 1965, the poor and minorities enjoyed steady improvements in their living conditions. They were predominantly self-responsible and independent and were ashamed to rely on any public assistance. No welfare programs even existed for those who were poor yet working. Murray shows how America’s intellectuals, such as Michael Harrington (author of The Other America), were responsible for changing these basic attitudes in the 1960s. From then on, it became the “system” (i.e., capitalism) that was creating poverty and racism. Welfare payments became an entitlement to be belligerently sought, not an embarrassment to be avoided. Programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, housing subsidies, food stamps, job training, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Supplemental Security Income were begun or dramatically expanded. Legislation and court decisions Increasingly favored the “underprivileged.” Yet there was nothing but disaster to show for this “help.” Murray explains that the subsequent 15-year period (1965-1980) featured what amounted to a war directly against the poor and blacks. He demonstrates how the independence and self-esteem of the “beneficiaries” were systematically under- mined by these programs. The improving trends of the 1950s were completely reversed in almost every statistic pertinent to the quality of life—e.g., Income, employment, education and crime. His concluding chapter calls for the immediate abolition of all federal social welfare programs for the working-age poor (i.e., the overwhelming majority of them).

The shortcomings of Murray’s analysis do not detract significantly from his central message. For example, he is derelict in neglecting to focus on the fact that the primary effect of the welfare state has been to harm the productive. His proposal for doing away with poverty programs is refreshing, but is unconvincingly justified in utilitarian, collectivistic terms (his “net happiness” criterion) Instead of on the moral grounds of individual rights. Still, Murray has fully documented the facts of how welfare and “affirmative action” programs have actually worsened the living conditions of the poor and blacks. By showing how welfare erodes its recipients’ independence, and how it leaves them, to that extent, incapable of living productive lives, Murray becomes one of the first policy analysts to see that the welfare system must be abolished, not merely “reformed.”

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The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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