Poverty in the US: why hasn't it disappeared?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.