Interview with Charles Murray

How best to help the poor? That question has long occupied the author of the pathbreaking book Losing Ground. And he's come up with some controversial, eye-opening answers.


Last year, Charles Murray was not a household name. Today, Newsweek columnist Meg Greenfield suggests that if you haven't yet been "Charles Murray'd" in a political conversation, you're about the last person in the country who hasn't.

It's all because of his book Losing Ground. Its powerfully documented thesis is that poor blacks made rapid progress from 1950 to 1965, but these gains were halted—even reversed—during the Great Society and affirmative-action period that followed, from 1965 to 1980.

Losing Ground goes on to link a renaissance of lower-class despair to the federal interventions ostensibly on behalf of the poor, and it even suggests abolishing all welfare for able-bodied Americans of working age.

Murray's credentials lend credibility to his argument. For seven years, he was with the American Institutes for Research, a respected think tank, where he conducted program evaluations in urban education, welfare, child nutrition, adolescent pregnancy, and other social services. He is a Peace Corps alumnus with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

No one thought his book would have much impact; his publisher reportedly expected it to have a limited academic market. Yet Newsweek's Robert Samuelson warned that Murray's haunting questions deserve hard answers. William Raspberry wrote a sympathetic Washington Post column called "Is the Best Welfare No Welfare?" Even in the liberal New Republic, a reviewer comparing Losing Ground with socialist Michael Harrington's The New American Poverty concluded that Murray's analysis "is, for better or worse, much more compelling—it has a feeling of horrible authenticity about the social and economic fortunes of poor Americans."

Murray was interviewed by REASON contributing editor Thomas Hazlett.

REASON: Your book Losing Ground is very hot right now. Why did you go into this analysis of social welfare policy?

MURRAY: My professional background consisted of evaluating specific programs the government was sponsoring in education or social services or, when I was in Thailand, rural development. So few programs accomplished anything like their ambitions, despite a lot of effort, and I just kept seeing patterns and reasons why they didn't accomplish what they were supposed to accomplish, and that led to the spin-off.

REASON: I'd like to go into some detail about the conclusions of your book. You spend a lot of time looking at three points—1950, 1965, and 1980—in your trend analysis. Could you briefly summarize your findings there?

MURRAY: There are separate chapters in the book on poverty as officially measured, unemployment, wages, occupations, education, crime, and the family. In one of these areas, namely, wages and occupations among those who have jobs, I paint a very positive portrait of blacks with jobs getting white-collar work, which they had not done before, and achieving in effect wage parity for equivalent years of education and experience. But with that single exception, the trend lines show sudden and mysterious changes for the worse, mostly in the mid-1960s. In some cases you actually had advances turn into retreat. I would argue that in education, for example, we had been seeing marked improvements for minorities and poor people up through about 1964 and suddenly that just flipped. Similarly, there is a lot of evidence that among poor people—again, especially blacks—crime had been getting lower in the 1950s and that then there was a surging rise in the 1960s. Summarizing the data, I say to the reader: You need to explain this; you have to recognize that on many important aspects of life things got worse for the poor, starting precisely when we kicked into high gear in the effort to help these people.

REASON: In 1965 you had been an architect of the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson and had been very interested in solving the problems of the poor, particularly the black poor. As you note in the book, you were very optimistic about future years. What went haywire starting in the mid-1960s?

MURRAY: We had, first, a change in our attitude toward who the poor are and why they are poor or why they are ill-educated or why they commit crimes. That change consisted very simply of deciding that the system is to blame. It was logically appropriate for us to do the things we did with the Great Society programs once you granted the basic premise that the system is to blame, that it's not the fault of the people we're trying to help. Unfortunately, in the process of making those changes, we sent a terrible message to all people, but especially the young people. We said, "You don't need to feel any sense of chagrin at the situation you're in. Even if you do make an effort to try to improve your situation, it's not at all clear that it's going to do any good, because the system is so locked in against you."

REASON: You say that the rules changed between 1960 and 1980 for some people, particularly the young and particularly the poor, but not for the affluent members of society. How was it that these people on the bottom of the economic totem pole got a different message?

MURRAY: Well, let's take the classic example of welfare. In the book, I take a pair of youngsters, Harold and Phyllis—they aren't necessarily black, Oriental, or Caucasian. They don't necessarily live in the slum, but they come from low-income parents and they have average ability, average education, and average skills. In 1960, if Phyllis finds herself pregnant, her only real option is to convince Harold to marry her or give the baby up for adoption. I mean there is AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), but that's a lousy life, because it's very small payment. There are no other sources of support. She can't get a job, because then she'll lose her benefits; and she can't live with Harold or else she will lose her benefits. Just from a very commonsense point of view, she has to do something about that situation and not try to bring up the baby herself. By 1970, 10 years later, the situation has changed drastically. She can get the equivalent of a minimum-wage income by putting together a package of AFDC, Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, and the rest of it. She may now live with Harold without losing her benefits, which is an extremely important change. In all of these ways, what made sense in 1960 no longer necessarily makes sense. If she wants to be with Harold, one thing is quite clear: it would be disastrous for them to be married, because once they're married then she will lose many of these benefits. So the same young couple that very likely would have gotten married in 1960 won't get married in 1970. And a woman who very possibly would not have kept a child is now raising the child. They are responding to the reality of the world around them.

REASON: One of the most striking aspects of your book is your very meticulous outlining of the process by which one set of poor people is dispossessed in favor of another set of poor people. How did this develop, and why is it allowed to go on?

MURRAY: We decided in the mid-1960s that all poor people are the same: they are all poor. We know they're poor because we have defined a poverty line, and they're all underneath it. So that's one aspect of it. The other aspect is, if it's not your fault that you are a student who is constantly assaulting the teacher, then it becomes very awkward to credit the student who is sitting there and studying hard. If you give that student credit, aren't you implying that the good student has something to do with his goodness, and doesn't that force you to admit the bad student has something to do with his badness?

We simply did not think about the very large population of poor people out there who are holding down jobs and trying to raise their kids right and hate crime and think people ought to obey the law and support themselves and do well in school. They just became invisible.

REASON: This sounds like an incredibly elitist notion—I mean, to look at a block of people and to say that they are simply victims and that there are no self-reliant individuals who will or can work their way out of poverty.

MURRAY: Is it elitism or is it racism? In the mid-1960s we also had the civil rights movement, and white America was confronted with a real dilemma. In 1964 we had passed the Civil Rights Act; in 1965 we had the Voting Rights Act. We were also making available a variety of other opportunities, educational and otherwise. Yet we were confronting riots in the street, and we were also confronting an extremely violent rhetoric in which white America was being accused of still falling far short of what it owed black America.

Now don't misunderstand me. I think the civil rights movement was an extraordinarily positive development, essential and positive. But white America's reaction when we failed to satisfy black America with the Civil Rights Act was to come up against a choice. On the one hand we could say to blacks, "Look, just because you ought to have equal rights doesn't mean you can burn down cities. You try that, and we're going to throw people who do it in jail. And if your kids are failing in school, we're going to flunk them. We'll make the schooling available, but if they flunk, they flunk." Theoretically, we could have said that. Or we could say, "It's much worse than we realized. We cannot in good faith make demands on this population of people." It was also racism in the sense that there are many whites who pay lip service to programs, pay lip service to values and behaviors and other things in blacks they completely disdain when they appear in whites. We've got to recognize that and ask ourselves, "White people, just what are we up to?"

REASON: I'd like to give you a chance to respond to some critics of your central thesis. First of all, there's the argument that the economy in general took a tailspin starting in the mid-to late '60s, and the downward trends you note simply followed the economy at large.

MURRAY: The changes in the indexes of unemployment occurred not at the end of the '60s, when the economy started to go bad. They occurred in 1965–67, '68, when the economy was overheated, when the overall unemployment was under 4 percent and for males in particular was under 3 percent. So it's kind of hard to appeal to a disintegrating economy to explain those trends.

REASON: What about the idea that the workforce experienced a massive increase, that you had all these young people coming into the workforce and crowding out people for jobs? You also had an enormous increase in the 15–25 population, which caused the great bulk of crime and overload of the schools during that period and what not. What's your response to this sort of a "demographic argument"?

MURRAY: For the economic indicators, part of the response is the same comment I made earlier. You're talking about an economy which was showing no signs of being unable to absorb people in the '60s. And on the question of crime, the increases in crime are seen even after controlling for the changing age and other demographic statistics.

REASON: Still another comment on your book is that you were attacking sort of a generic welfare, when in fact it's not welfare that's bad—it's the sort of programs we have put in place under social welfare. How do you deal with that criticism?

MURRAY: When I got to the end of the book and was trying to put together my ideal system, I was not philosophically opposed to installing a federally run system that tried to correct these things, but I could not construct a system that I believed in myself. Any system I could concoct for myself and try to imagine what would happen if it were actually put in place ran into the problem that the downward-pulling incentives were greater than the upward-pushing ones. The 19th-century British intellectuals of whom Gertrude Himmelfarb writes so fascinatingly in her book The Idea of Poverty were right when they dealt with the true difficulties of trying to give something to somebody and at the same time do good for them. It's ironic that we pass off as being sort of a pop-wisdom notion that you do more harm than good by trying to help people. A little bit of intellectual history would help us a lot here.

REASON: There does seem to be some realization among social policy experts that we really have some negative incentives and some negative effects coming out of these programs, yet these programs seem totally resistant to reform. Why don't bureaucrats themselves take the initiative to reform the policies so that we're not destroying incentives for the poor?

MURRAY: They see themselves as doing precisely that. They see themselves as having evaluations of their programs and taking those evaluations and trying to improve them and so forth. I, as a person who wrote those evaluations, know that the recommendations are very seldom implemented. Even if they are implemented, however, they are recommendations within a rather narrow range of possibilities. For example, one very seldom gets recommendations to just scrap a program.

Another reason that the programs don't get changed as the evaluations go on is that people see success where I see failure—for example, in the jobs programs. The evaluations of the jobs programs do not generally show no effect at all. What they show is, on the average, about $200 per year more income for those on the program. These effects are extremely tenuous and bear no relationship to the expectations of policymakers when they started the program. But they are statistically significant and can be shown to be cost-effective if you stretch out your time horizon far enough in the future and make certain assumptions about the permanence of these changes. Policymakers look at the glass which I consider to be about an eighth full and say, "Look at this glass of milk." I look at that glass and I say, "You've only got an eighth of a glass of milk in there, and that's a failure." So there's a strong impulse on the part of these designers of programs to sustain their faith on the basis of very slender gains.

REASON: What are your specific policy suggestions in welfare, education, and crime?

MURRAY: I will begin by saying that the tenor of the last part of the book is: I'm going to lay out some moral problems for you. In the very last chapter I do this in terms of proposals. The first one has to do with affirmative action. I think we ought to strip our laws and regulations of everything that rewards or recommends or requires preferential treatment by race. I think that is one of the single most unfortunate changes of the 1960s and it is one that we can change at no cost. Then I could take on two other proposals. The first is in education, and I'd say let's give vouchers or some other form of aid to parents which enables the free market to work in education. I probably have gotten more instead of less radical on this one since I wrote the book. I am increasingly ready to junk the public school system. The reason for doing this in terms of poor people is that you have lots of parents out there who, given the opportunity, would go out and interview teachers and select schools just the way middle-class parents do when they send their kids to private schools, and they would do a very good job of it and they would finally get schools that operate on the same principles they do. Some parents won't behave that way, but my response is, how have you lost?—because the schools right now are not educating our children in the inner city.

The other proposal was the most interesting and the one that's gotten the most attention. I simply say this: I have a plan that would unquestionably make steady workers out of most people who are now considered not job-ready, which would make the numbers of illegitimate children to single teenagers plunge, and would do a number of other good things—including, by the way, restoring status to that working class that most deserves it. That proposal consists of scrapping the whole thing, getting rid of everything in the whole social welfare system. Having done that, let's look around and see what the world looks like and see what we can do to even make further improvements. And I say, well, I'll put back unemployment insurance. But once I've done that, my argument is: just what kinds of people are left that need help that can't expect to get it through locally funded services? I would say that in this proposal perhaps the punchline comes at the end, where I've offered the choice to my readers that they would make if they knew their own children were going to be orphaned. Would they put their own children with a family that was so poor that their children would be ragged and some days would be hungry, but they would be sent to school and would be taught to value independence? Or would they put their children with parents who would not send them to school, would not teach them such values, but would have plenty of food and clothing given to them by others? To me the answer is obvious, and I'm trying to get readers to realize the ways in which they are making the other choice for other people's children.

REASON: When you refer to local services, do you mean local government services or private agencies?

MURRAY: I'm not too specific about that in the book, because I figure I antagonize people enough already by getting rid of the federal system. My own feeling is that it is very difficult even to have good municipal services because of the inherent problems in deciding who gets help and who doesn't. I believe in the free market in lots of different ways, and one of the ways I believe in the free market is that it throws forth services that are most badly needed more or less to the extent that they are needed. It also is pretty good in calibrating how to deliver those services. I don't have much faith in governments to do that.

REASON: When you say, "Throw out the whole system," you're talking everything but unemployment insurance and Social Security?

MURRAY: Yes, I don't deal with the elderly in the book, so I don't deal with Social Security. Otherwise you've stated it correctly—the whole shebang, from food stamps to AFDC and the rest.

REASON: What about the hungry children?

MURRAY: The hungry children? Well, let's talk about hungry children, if you don't like it when I say that I'd get rid of food stamps. Let's back off a minute and think about hungry children. If it is true that malnourished children in this country are predominantly youngsters who are malnourished because their parents cannot afford to give them an adequate diet, then food stamps make sense. If, however, malnourishment of children in this country is predominantly a problem of a parent who is feeding a baby on soft drinks and potato chips, to take an example that unfortunately is not drawn out of thin air—if that is the nature of the problem, then food stamps are not going to help. I submit to you as an empirical statement that the vast majority of malnourished children in this country are of the latter type. So don't talk to me about hungry children unless you are prepared to ask why they are malnourished, which is a better word than hungry, and what "generous" programs will do for them.

Furthermore, can you imagine in the absence of federal programs that a hungry child in this country is going to go on without anybody being willing to help? I'm willing to accept the responsibility that you are always going to have problems in coverage, as indeed you have problems in coverage of food stamps. But the notion that there are not going to be people ready and eager to feed hungry children is absurd and ahistorical.

REASON: The reaction to Losing Ground has been phenomenal. This must surprise you in terms of the depth of the commenting, but what about the tone?

MURRAY: There are some things that bother me a lot about the reactions. Those which have been critical bother me because of the number of times that reviewers have simply either not read the book or, if they have read it, have been unwilling to come to grips with what it says. For example, there is a strong impulse on the part of many of the critical people to say, well his numbers are wrong, and then to advance examples which are simply not accurate and which could be seen to be inaccurate by a careful examination of the book itself. On other grounds, occasionally I get a conservative who agrees with the book so fast, for the wrong reasons, that it scares me. I think they are agreeing because this looks like a good way of lowering their tax bill, and they really aren't that interested in the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged. The heartening reaction is among sort of the neoconservative, neoliberal, and libertarian groups who are ready to argue about a lot of these issues. I keep hearing a dialogue going on that I say to myself could not possibly have occurred five or six years ago. Right now, I think too much attention is being devoted to the final chapter and to the technical debate about whether the trends have really been that bad. But I think the guts of the book, which may have reverberations down the road defining social policy lines, are in the chapters discussing the role of status and noneconomic rewards and the constraints that we really face in trying to develop policies that help people.

REASON: I think for me the most remarkable thing in all this reaction is that you, to my knowledge, have not been called a racist and you've been taken seriously even by the left.

MURRAY: I've been very surprised that I have not been called a racist. I expected that, and it has not happened.

REASON: So the times they are changing?

MURRAY: Maybe. I think, however, that I won't let you end on such an optimistic note. There is still a lot of inertia that says, "Let's just more or less keep on doing the same thing, because it's really no skin off our nose, and it gives the feeling of doing good." So I think that when change comes, it's not going to come as a result of the Reagan administration pushing for it. It's going to come probably because people on the left, with the moral fervor they have brought to almost everything, become attached to what I see as the real problems of the poor.

REASON: Now we're going to finish up on a philosophical note here. What do we owe the poor?

MURRAY: A chance. Let me put it another way. When I am trying to decide what kind of social policy I want, I say to myself, "What would I want if I were a parent with little money trying to raise kids." I would want them to have a chance at an education. I would want there to be a job out there if I went out and looked for it hard enough. I would want to be safe in my person. I would want my children to be safe. I would want to be secure in my possessions—I guess rights of property, even though I would have very little property. After that, I really find a lot longer list of things I wouldn't want if I were poor. I don't want somebody coming down into my neighborhood and telling my daughter that it's okay for her to have a baby—not when I'm telling her the opposite. I don't want someone to come into the school and tell my son that it's not his fault that he's not doing well on the test. There's a whole list of things like that that I look around right now and see I would get if I were poor.

So, what do we owe the poor? We owe them a chance, we owe them opportunities that they can make good on, with no guarantees, but most of all with no penalties for success.

REASON: Finally, you say as a general rule that compulsory transfers from one poor person to another are uncomfortably like robbery. Is there a moral element in government welfare programs?

MURRAY: Yes, I see a morality problem, but one on which I'm willing to compromise. It is my own personal view that the government has very limited rights in what it can do to me, including taking my property to use on behalf of others. And even if I'm in the middle class, for them to take money that I have earned and spend it on these programs is wrong. They don't have that right. On the other hand, when I say I'm willing to compromise, it is because, yes, I've paid too much taxes, but I still get along okay. So I'm not going to go to the barricades for that. I hope that sooner or later I can address these issues in more clearly philosophical terms. I explicitly avoided doing that in Losing Ground, because as soon as I do that, I am too easy to dismiss. I'm just another nut from whatever political viewpoint. If you're a liberal, you don't have to take Charles Murray seriously, because obviously he's one of those people who thinks it's like robbery if you tax people to do good. In the book, I try very hard to say to some people whose good intentions I respect, "I'm going to deal with this issue on the same terms you use and try to lead you to see that what you're doing is wrong even as you define right or wrong."

REASON: Your next project is going to go into this, if my inside information is correct here. What is your next step?

MURRAY: I quit the American Institutes for Research, where I formerly worked, with an idea of exploring the role of some of the noneconomic aspects of the quality of life. I want to go out there and look at how we can capture the other extremely important aspects of life, including perhaps the most elusive of all, the value of freedom. Where that will lead me, I do not know. But it ought to be interesting.