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