Losing Ground
by Charles Murray

An analysis of the results of social legislation and judicial decisions in the USA from 1960 to 1980 that shows the policy made conditions worse than they would have been (given the trends of the previous twenty years) for the groups the policy was intended to benefit.
What emerged in the mid-1960s was an almost unbroken intellectual consensus that the individualist explanation of poverty was altogether outmoded and reactionary ... Poverty was not the fault of the individual but of the system. page 29

The first phase of the civil rights movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on 3 July ... The civil rights movement had triumphed - and thirteen days later came the first of the race riots, in Harlem. page 30

The moral agonizing among whites was strikingly white-centered. Whites had created the problem, it was up to whites to fix it, and there was very little in the dialogue that treated blacks as responsible actors. Until July 1964 most whites (and most blacks) thought in terms of equal access to opportunity. Blacks who failed to take advantage were in the same boat with whites who failed to take advantage. By 1967 this was not an intellectually acceptable way to conceive of the issue. Blacks were exempted. Once more, in a new and curious fashion, whites had put up the "Whites Only" sign. page 33

The moral implication of this is that blacks are not moral agents. And if they are not moral agents, why should we be concerned with their rights? They have no rights. With respect to community action programs he writes:
For every evaluation report that could document a success, there was a stack that told of local groups that were propped up by federal money for the duration of the grant, then disappeared, with nothing left behind. page 36

The sponsors of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with Hubert Humphrey in the lead, had come down adamantly on the side of equality of opportunity - the nation was to be made color blind. The wording of the legislation itself expressly disassociated its provisions from preferential treatment. Yet only a year later, speaking at Howard University commencement exercises, Lyndon Johnson was proclaiming the "next and most profound stage of the battle for civil rights, "namely, the battle" not just (for) equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result." By 1967, people who opposed preferential measures for minorities to overcome the legacy of discrimination were commonly seen as foot-draggers on civil rights if not closet racists. page 43

The number of people living in poverty stopped declining just as the public assistance program budgets and the rate of increase in those budgets were highest. The question is why this should be. If we were asking about progress in reducing a problem like chronic unemployment, explanations would be easier. Fixing the last 10 percent of a problem is often more difficult than fixing the first 90 percent of it. But poverty as officially defined is a matter of cash in hand from whatever source. The recipient of the benefit does not have to "do" anything - does not have to change behavior or values, does not have to "qualify" in any way except to be a recipient. To eliminate such poverty, all we need do is mail enough checks with enough money to enough people. In the late sixties, still more in the seventies, the number of checks, the size of the checks, and the number of beneficiaries all increased. Yet, perversely, poverty chose those years to halt a decline that had been underway for two decades. page 58

Growth did not stop. But, for some reason, the benefits of economic growth stopped trickling down to the poor. page 59

In 1979, net poverty stood at 6.1 percent of the population, compared with 6.2 percent in 1972, despite more than a doubling of real expenditures on in-kind assistance during the interim. page 63

Between 1950 and 1960, the Department of Labor did virtually nothing to help poor people train for or find jobs. During the first half of the 1960s (1960-64), it spent a comparatively trivial half-billion dollars (in 1980 dollars) on jobs programs. From 1965 to 1969, as the Johnson initiatives got underway, a more substantial $8.8 billion was spent. In the 1970s through fiscal 1980, expenditures totaled $76.7 billion. page 70

Furthermore, the effort was concentrated on a relatively small portion of the population. From the beginning, the government jobs programs spent most of their money on disadvantaged youths in their late teens and early twenties. They were at the most critical time of their job development, they were supposed to be the most trainable, and they had the longest time to reap the benefits of help. In 1980, not an atypical year, 61 percent of the participants under CETA were 21 or younger, with a large but indeterminable additional proportion in their early twenties, and 36 percent were black ... The contrast between the government's hands-off policy in the 1950s and intervention in the 1970s is so great that it seems inconceivable that we should not be able to observe positive changes in the macroeconomic statistics. And yet in fact the macroeconomic statistics went in exactly the wrong direction for the group that was at the top of the priority list. page 71

In the early 1950s, black youths had an unemployment rate almost identical to that of whites. - page 72

But in the late 1960s - at the very moment when the jobs programs began their massive expansion - the black youth employment rate began to rise again, steeply, and continued to do so throughout the 1970s. - page 73

In 1954, 85 percent of black males 16 years old were participating in the labor force, a rate essentially equal to that of white males; only four-tenths of a percentage point separated the two populations. Nor was this a new phenomenon. Black males had been participating in the labor force at rates as high or higher than white males back to the turn of the twentieth century ... Beginning in 1966, black male LFP started to fall substantially faster than white LFP. By 1972, a gap of 5.9 percentage points had opened up between black males and white males. - page 76

For whatever reasons, black males born in the early 1950s and thereafter had a different posture toward the labor market from their fathers and older brothers. - page 81

The problem with this new form of unemployment was not that young black males - or young poor males - stopped working altogether, but they moved in and out of the labor force at precisely that point in their lives when it was most important that they acquire skills, work habits, and a work record. By behaving so differently from previous generations, many also forfeited their futures as economically independent adults. - page 82

A profound irony of the trends of the sixties was that growing numbers of blacks seemed to give up on getting ahead in the world just as other blacks were demonstrating that it was finally possible to do so. - page 85

If in 1980 five out of ten whites wore white collars to work, so did four out of ten blacks - many times the almost nonexistent black white-collar class of the 1950s. - page 86

In 1980, 48 percent of live births among blacks were to single women, compared with 17 percent in 1950. - page 126

During the same period, white illegitimate births were increasing as well, from less than 2 percent in 1950 to 11 percent in 1980. - page 127

Poor people play with fewer chips and cannot wait as long for results. - page 155

Under the rules of 1970, it was rational on grounds of dollars and cents for a poor, unmarried woman who found herself to be pregnant to have and keep the baby even if she did not particularly want a child. - page 160

In 1970, her child provides her with the economic insurance that a husband used to represent. - page 161

In the 1950s, the reason for "getting people off welfare" was to keep them from being a drag on the good people - meaning the self-sufficient people - and to rescue them from a degrading status. It was not necessary to explain why it was better to be self-sufficient; it was a precondition for being a member of society in good standing. In the late 1960s, with the attack on middle-class norms and the rise of the welfare rights movement, this was no longer good enough. Self-sufficiency was no longer taken to be an intrinsic obligation of healthy adults. - page 180

The notion that there is an intrinsic good in working even if one does not have to may have impressive philosophical credentials, but, on its face, it is not very plausible - at least not to a young person whose values are still being formed. - page 185

The young ghetto black on his way up was not cheered on his way, as the young Jewish or Chinese or, for that matter, white Anglo-Saxon protestant youth has been. I further suggest that this withdrawal of support can be traced in some significant degree to the excuse that, starting in the mid-1960s, social policy actively pressed on the ghetto: "It's not your fault." - page 191

When poor delinquents arrested for felonies were left on probation, as the elite wisdom prescribed they should be, the persons put most at risk were poor people who lived in their neighborhoods. They, not the elite, gave up the greater part of the good called "safety" so that the disadvantaged delinquent youth should not experience the injustice of punishment ... More generally, social policy after the mid-1960s demanded an extraordinary range of transfers from the most capable poor to the least capable, from the most law-abiding to the least law-abiding, and from the most responsible to the least responsible. - page 201

... the issue is not how much good we can afford to do (as the choice is usually put), but how to do good at all. - page 204

Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer. - page 212

My conclusion is that social programs in a democratic society tend to produce net harm in dealing with the most difficult problems. They will inherently tend to have enough of an inducement to produce bad behavior and not enough of a solution to stimulate good behavior; and the more difficult the problem, the more likely it is that this relationship will prevail. - page 218

It was wrong to take from the most industrious, most responsible poor - take safety, education, justice, status - so that we could cater to the least industrious, least responsible poor. It was wrong to impose rules that made it rational for adolescents to behave in ways that destroyed their futures. The changes we made were not just policy errors, not just inexpedient, but unjust. - page 219

If an impartial observer from another country were shown the data on the black lower classes from 1950 to 1980 but given no information about contemporaneous changes in society or public policy, that observer would infer that racial discrimination against the black poor increased drastically during the late 1960s and 1970s. - page 221

Before the 1960s, we had a black underclass that was held down because blacks were systematically treated differently from whites, by whites. Now, we have a black underclass that is held down for the same generic reason - because blacks are systematically treated differently from whites, by whites. The problem consists of a change in the nature of white condescension toward blacks. - page 222

Whites began to tolerate and make excuses for behavior among blacks that whites would disdain in themselves or their children. - page 223

The most conspicuous local success stories were drug dealers, pimps, and fences. Friends who were arrested by the police went free or were assigned to educational or counseling programs for which the youth who went straight was not eligible. And when the hard-working student did get into a government-sponsored job program, his first lesson was that the ones who did no work were treated exactly the same as he was, except that he was likely to come under attack from his coworkers for threatening to get the others in trouble. This experience contained only one kind of lesson: In the day-to-day experience of a youth growing up in a black ghetto, there was no evidence whatsoever that working within the system paid off. The way to get something from the system was to be sufficiently a failure to qualify for help, or to con the system. What a racially segregated society once taught the young black about living with his inferiority was now taught by a benevolent social welfare system. - page 188

I am told by spokesmen - white and black alike - that it is not my fault, that I am the victim of forces beyond my control. If I expect to fail, it is extremely useful to believe what I am told. In fact, it is essential. If I observe a peer who is studying hard, I am threatened. Such a peer is asserting one of two things, either of which is unacceptable. One assertion is that he is better than I (and is therefore free of the forces that excuse me for failing). The other assertion is even more threatening: that he is not better than I, but rather that I am wrong in excusing myself for failing. Either way, I have a motive to discourage such behavior by my fellow students. - pages 188-189

... the norm in inner-city schools during the 1970s was that the hard-working student was said to be "acting white" and was subjected to severe criticism, isolation, even physical assault. There was no "praise for trying": instead there was social ostracism, which, for a typical adolescent, is perhaps the worst of punishments.

Year Read: 1987


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