Perhaps no public policy book has had the impact of Charles Murray’s 1980 classic Losing Ground. Early opposition to welfare tended to focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse” within welfare programs, with the “welfare queen” a staple of conservative campaigns including Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory. Murray transformed that sterile debate by showing that the welfare programs of the Great Society were not only abused, but more fundamentally, failed to lift people out of poverty. Indeed, the programs created a series of perverse incentives that encouraged social pathologies such as joblessness and out-of-wedlock births that helped create a permanent underclass.
By the 1990s, Murray’s heretical views had become part of the received political wisdom. Even Bill Clinton ran for office on the promise of “ending welfare as we know it.” Finally, in 1996, Congress did exactly that, passing the first major overhaul of federal welfare policy in 30 years, abolishing the federal entitlement to welfare and imposing work requirements, time limits, and incentives to reduce out-of-wedlock births.
Since then, politicians of virtually every stripe have been quick to trumpet the success of these reforms. By many measures, these reforms have been a tremendous success. Welfare rolls have declined by nearly 47 percent, and some six million former welfare recipients have returned to productive work.
Now along comes Murray with a new monograph to say “hold the champagne.” Despite welfare reform, most of the problems that he wrote about in Losing Ground still exist, bubbling along just below the surface and ready to burst out at any moment with major consequences for our society. It is a surprisingly pessimistic look at our future, and one that offers a significant challenge. But it is not one that can be easily dismissed.
Murray looks at three key indicators: criminality, dropout rates from the labor force among low-income young men, and out-of-wedlock births among low-income women. His conclusion: “Nothing has really changed yet with the American underclass.”
While crime rates are down, it is not because we have diminished the factors giving rise to criminality but because we have put extraordinary numbers of people in prison. If we were not incarcerating people at record rates, crime would still be rising. Murray suggests that it cannot be taken as a measure of success that rather than socializing the underclass we have simply put them behind bars. What does it portend for American society, he wonders, if we simply end up with an ever-larger proportion of our population sitting in prison? And what happens if we can’t continue to imprison people at this rate?
While unemployment is at one of the lowest levels ever, young black men continue to drop out of the labor force in astonishingly large numbers. Nearly 23 percent of young black men between the ages of 16 and 24 now report that they are neither employed nor looking for work. Among young white men, the dropout level is much lower, around 9 percent, but the proportional rate of increase has been alarmingly high, especially among white teenagers ages 16 to 19.
While teenage birth rates have finally begun to decline, the ratio of illegitimate to legitimate births remains alarmingly high, especially among young black women. Two out of every three black children are still born out of wedlock. Among whites, more than a quarter of all children are born out of wedlock. Given the massive evidence that growing up without a father increases not only the likelihood of a life of poverty but nearly every social pathology from crime to drug use to dropping out of school, these continued high illegitimacy rates are bad news indeed.
Murray thus likens the state of the underclass to “an overweight chain-smoking executive who has gone on a diet and lost three pounds, cut down to five cigarettes a day, and taken a daily walk for two weeks. The patient feels great. He thinks everything has turned around. Meanwhile, [his doctor] knows that nothing has really changed.”
The underclass, it seems, have again become invisible. Conservative politicians have staked much of their credibility on the success of welfare reform and seem unwilling to risk the discordant note of suggesting that there is unfinished business. At the same time, most Americans are experiencing record prosperity. Many, generalizing from their own good fortune, believe that the good news in their lives applies to all strata of society. As a result, the few voices warning about the continued existence of the underclass have come from the political left. Yet the left’s proposals for new government initiatives are exactly the thinking that helped create the underclass in the first place. Murray’s warning, therefore, is directed to those of us who opposed traditional welfare. We must not be content with what has been accomplished to date.
If there is a problem with this study, it is not with the meticulously researched data or even its conclusions, but with its pessimistic, at times almost bitterly cynical tone. For example, Murray couches most of his warning in terms of self-interest. If we do not do something about the continuing underclass, it will have consequences for the rest of us, such as bringing crime and other problems to our affluent neighborhoods. He deliberately avoids a prolonged discussion of the terrible impact of underclass life on the people living it, describing such a discussion as “not, apparently, salient. We have successfully assuaged our guilt by spending money on the commodities. Providing other requisites of a satisfying life—family, neighborhood, safety and civility, and productive work—is too tough.”
As a matter of government policy, that may be true. But it is unfair to the thousands of Americans who give of themselves to mentor, care for, educate, and work with the underclass. In even the worst neighborhoods, meaningful acts of care and generosity are surprisingly common. Americans do care about their fellow Americans.
That said, Murray’s work should serve as a wake-up call. Whether out of self-interest or compassion, we need to recognize that the underclass has not gone away. We—all of us—need to do more.
Michael D. Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.