All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1984

A Reviewers Notebook: Losing Ground

A standard approach to Welfare State philosophy is to consider its effect on society as a whole. By removing all the penalties of life, by making the procession from cradle to grave an easy one regardless of one’s ability to contribute to the sums available to pay for schools, insurance and three square meals a day, the Welfarist philosophy destroys initiatives on a universal scale. The result is social stagnation, a society without the profit margins required to encourage inventiveness of any kind. With the fall-off of productivity the Welfare State must turn to inflation to finance itself. But that is a blind alley, as we are now discovering all over the Western world.

Charles Murray, the author of Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980 (Basic Books, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022, 323 pp., $23.95) is very much alive to what the ascendancy of Welfarist thinking has done to society as a whole. But the unique feature of his book is that he doesn’t waste his time crying over the fate of the democratic majorities who have voted for all the Entitlement programs that are now weighing us down. We deserve what we unwittingly invite, which will be next to nothing when all the entitlements cancel out with the inevitable destruction of the currency. Mr. Murray’s immediate concerns lie elsewhere—he is worried about the here-and-now effect of the Welfarist philosophy on the poor themselves. As his title suggests, they have been “losing ground” ever since Michael Harrington discovered “poverty” back in the Nineteen Fifties.

The proof of lost ground lies in the statistics—after thirty years of the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society, we have created a whole group at the bottom of the social order who have a vested interest in remaining poor. It is just as Jack Kemp has said: if you subsidize something, you get more of it. Out of a misplaced generosity we have done irreparable harm to thousands of individuals, many of them black, who have been deprived of reasons to try to escape from the poverty trap.

The Basic Trouble: “Homogenizing” the Poor

The basic trouble, as Mr. Murray sees it, is that in rejecting the concept that individuals are responsible for their own behavior we have “homogenized” the poor. If Society is to blame for their plight, they are all alike in their victimization. Prior to 1950 our social order made a dis tinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. There was undoubtedly a lot of hypocrisy in the way the rich spoke of the latter category, but at least there was a status distinction that permitted the self-respecting poor family to face the world with a will to do better for its children.

When social payments to the poor became a right, not a charity, status was denied to the struggling family that was doing its best to “make it” without becoming a burden to others. What followed worked a particular hardship on blacks in the new northern ghettos. With as much money available from relief of various sorts—unemployment benefits, food stamps, and whatever—as might be obtained by pressing an ironing board in an overheated laundry, one would have to be a fool to take a job on a permanent basis. Short-run considerations came to dominate the situation. The young in the ghettos got the general idea: work as little as possible, take the hand-out, indulge in crime when it seemed safe to do so, scoff at the homilies of teachers, and try a little heroin as a natural sequel to marijuana.

The new morality, which made light of a man’s responsibility toward a family, turned the generous provisions of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children legislation into something that was totally unintended. AFDC made it profitable for a teen-age girl who wanted to escape from an uncongenial home environment to use an illegitimate child or two as her meal-ticket to an independent life. The Supreme Court made it legal for a man to move in and out of an established apartment, but with no compulsion to contribute to his own children’s upbringing.

A Choice

In his search for a solution Mr. Murray asks himself an uncomfortable question. “Let us suppose,” he says, “that you, a parent, could know that tomorrow your own child would be made an orphan. You have a choice. You may put your child with an extremely poor family, so poor that your child will be badly clothed and will indeed sometimes be hungry. But you know that the parents have worked hard all their lives, will make sure your child goes to school and studies, and will teach your child that independence is a primary value. Or you may put your child with a family with parents who have never worked, who will be incapable of overseeing your child’s education—but have plenty of food and good clothes, provided by others.”

Mr. Murray doesn’t have to reach very far for his answer. In choosing the poor but respectable family to take care of his hypothetically orphaned child he wonders how anyone can justify the support of a system that indirectly makes the other choice for other children.

When he comes to prophesy for the future, Mr. Murray is careful to distinguish between the probable and the possible. With an eye to the political situation he says “Congress will not abolish income-maintenance for the working-aged. The public school system is not in jeopardy of replacement by vouchers. The federal government will not abandon legalized racial discrimi nation when it is thought to help the underdog. More general]y, it is hard to imagine any significant reform of social policy in the near future.”

But, having said this, Mr. Murray holds out a hope that “when reforms finally do occur, they will happen not because stingy people have won, but because generous people have stopped kidding themselves.”

His own proposal is to “repeal every bit of legislation and reverse every court decision that in any way requires, recommends, or awards differential treatment according to race.” He wants to get back on the track toward a co]or-blind society that we left in 1965. “Race,” he says, “is not a morally admirable reason for treating one person differently from another. Period.” He might have added “no kidding.”

Would something terrible happen, he asks, if we could abolish the whole Federal welfare package? Teen-age mothers would have to rely on support from their parents, or the father of the child might have to go to work. Sons and daughters who fail to find work would have to live a bit longer with their parents.

They did it before 1950. Surely it could be done again.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.