Poverty in the US: why hasn't it disappeared?

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Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, by Charles Murray. New York: Basic Books, 1984. $23.95. America has been losing the war on poverty, argues Charles Murray in his controversial new book, ``Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980.'' More precisely, he says that the programs associated with President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty (e.g., Job Corps, Comprehensive Employment Training Act), along with the welfare programs initiated during the New Deal but considerably liberalized since the 1930s (e.g., Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Unemployment Insurance), have actually caused or contributed to the myriad social problems which plague the poor neighborhoods of America's cities. Mr. Murray notes that even though the years between 1950 and 1980 were marked by economic growth, and although we as a nation poured an unprecedented amount of money into the effort to eradicate poverty, especially after 1965, progress against poverty -- measured by the decline in the proportion of our citizenry living below the official poverty line -- actually was greatest before 1965, and had stopped by around 1970.

Further, other social problems the poverty programs were trying to wipe out have actually been exacerbated by their effects. Is Murray right? There are two parts to the question. First, has our social policy been an unmitigated failure? Second, if there are areas of failure, or lack of progress, is the explanation offered by Murray the correct one? I believe the answer to both is ``no.'' Here's why:

While Murray paints a picture of unrelieved bleakness in describing trends among the poor, the facts about their condition are more complex than he suggests. There has in fact been little or no progress in bringing down the poverty rate since the late '60s. But very little of the social expenditures for the nonelderly and nondisabled has gone for cash assistance. Instead, most of the aid we offer the working-aged poor is in the form of in-kind benefits like medical care and food stamps. And there have been improvements in the problems these programs were designed to deal with.

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For example, the increased access to medical care offered by medicaid, along with the improved nutrition resulting from programs like WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and food stamps, have contributed to an increase in life expectancy and a decrease in infant mortality for the poor -- especially poor blacks -- over and above improvements on these indicators within the population at large.

The malnutrition and hunger ``rediscovered'' in the years just before the War on Poverty are widely acknowledged to have been wiped out by food stamps. Sadly, they're on the rise once again in the wake of the Reagan administration's cutbacks. So it seems that we did do some things right.

But clearly there are still big problems among the poor: crime, declining educational quality, increasing numbers of illegitimate births to teen-agers, declining employment among young men, and increasing numbers of poor, female-headed households -- and all, as Murray points out, heavily concentrated among poor blacks, the population which was targeted to receive most help from the programs.

Why? Murray blames the welfare system, for the incentives it put in place made it reasonable for the poor to accept welfare and to shun regular, low-income employment. Welfare in 1970 is said to have been more ``attractive'' than it was in 1960: Benefits were up, recipients could live with their mates (whose income could supplement their own so long as they weren't married), and elites promoted the notion that accepting public aid was not inherently degrading.

Educational quality declined and few were adequately prepared for participation in the work force, says Murray. So young women went ahead and kept their babies and went on welfare when they found themselves pregnant; they were assured of an independent income whether their mates stayed, or, more commonly, left them and their offspring.

For young men, the available jobs for which they were suitably trained were unattractive, and in any event they had several other options -- living off their girlfriends, collecting unemployment benefits, enrolling in paid public work-training programs, or turning to crime (which incurred lower risks and costs than ever before). With this set of incentives, Murray contends, males growing up since the poverty programs were inaugurated opted out of stable work-force participation. Thus, the high rates of all the wrong stuff and the low rates of all the right stuff.

Murray's argument sounds convincing. Young women were supposedly lured by the attractions of welfare to mortgage their futures for a check available in the short term. Young men are alleged to have dropped out of the labor force for a similar set of attractions.

But, then, why the continuation of these trends into the '70s, when welfare benefits were cut back and fewer of the increasing numbers of female-headed families were qualifying? The argument is often made -- in contrast to Murray's -- that the root of the ``welfare problem'' is lack of work opportunities for the poor. For example, William J. Wilson of the University of Chicago finds that male joblessness contributes to much of the increase in female-headed households among the black poor. But Murray strongly argues that employment opportunities were available -- even in low-skill jobs -- and especially as racial discrimination decreased.

It is true that the number of low-skill jobs has increased, but Murray has not made note of a crucial feature about these jobs: As John Kasarda, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, has demonstrated, these jobs are where the disadvantaged poor are not -- in the suburbs, and in the Sunbelt. (Conversely, the jobs available in Northern cities, where the disadvantaged poor are increasingly concentrated, tend to be those with relatively high-skill requirements.) It is likely that the problem these young people face is that they have no future to mortgage in the first place. Here, the failures in education and occupational opportunity, rather than welfare, stand out.

Murray argues that Americans -- especially the poor -- would be better off without any federal welfare programs for people of working age. People should be forced to turn to the market, their friends and families, or as a last resort, to private or nonfederal sources of assistance (which are superior to federal aid, he claims, because they allow closer scrutiny and supervision of applicants).

He says that evidence from American history supports his contention that this policy will turn around the disturbing trends. Yet closer attention to American history would have spared Murray from such a false inference. Before the initiation of federal welfare programs during the New Deal, most of the poor did just what he suggested -- and suffered. Most worked -- but didn't earn a living wage. Others turned to family and friends -- who in turn had to sacrifice their health and savings. And there was always a group unable to work because of partial disability or responsibility for the care of small children and the lack of adequate child care -- and with no network of kin and acquaintances to turn to. This group relied on private or local charity.

Then -- as now -- these sources of help faced more need than they had resources to relieve. Basing relief on a local tax base meant then -- as it would now -- that resources and need were unevenly distributed. Only the federal government has been able to even out the match between need and resources, and avoid the problem of interstate competition for lower tax rates.

There is a cyclical pattern to ideas about welfare. Earlier ``reformers'' have advocated a solution to the problem of ``dependency'' much like Murray's -- that is, cutting off all public assistance. The result was not that large numbers of people suddenly found a will to work where none had previously existed, for the majority of people receiving aid then -- as now -- were unable to work. Rather, as the work of University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Katz suggests, the families of the poor were broken up. Large numbers of children were given up for adoption by parents too poor to support them, while many of the aged went to live out their days in the poorhouse.

The elderly are taken care of by the federal government -- and, interestingly, Murray mounts no attack on those social insurance programs which enable the elderly to avoid the fate that awaited the aged in pre-New Deal days. Why should we as a nation want to turn back the clock for our children, by abandoning them and their families to a policy which has demonstrated its incapacity to end poverty or dependency many times over?

By asking provocative questions about the results of our social policies, Murray performs an important service. By advocating the elimination or cutback of social programs as the solution to our social problems -- with allegedly compelling, but in the final analysis simply wrong empirical analyses -- he is misleading. The best advice this reviewer can offer is this: Read the book -- it's essential to following current domestic policy debates -- but be sure to consult some of the more balanced and accurate treatments of the same period and/or similar issues, such as John Schwarz's ``America's Hidden Success: A Reassessment of Twenty Years of Public Policy'' (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983) or the special issue of the journal ``Transaction'' (December 1983).

Ann Shola Orloff's Ph.D. research focused on social welfare issues.

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