Ending Welfare As We Knew It by Myron Magnet

Myron Magnet, National Review, December 19, 2005.


There’s no better proof of the adage that ideas have consequences than Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. The magisterial 1984 classic provides a double measure of evidence: in its argument, and in the fact that it changed the world.

Murray’s case is this: During the mid-1960s, elite opinion about the causes of poverty suddenly altered, with the radical abruptness of a scientific-paradigm shift and the arbitrariness of a change in fashion. Whereas once everyone had agreed that America was a land of opportunity for all, and that poverty could result only from indolence or vice (or, in a few cases, from misfortune that merited succor), the elites had come to believe that “poverty was not the fault of the individual but of the system,” as Murray says. In particular, pervasive white racism was to blame for black poverty (blacks making up a disproportional part of the poor), and racism was equally to blame for the kind of black vice and dysfunction so explosively on display in the inner-city riots of the mid-Sixties. Whites therefore had to make amends by providing blacks not with equality of opportunity, which deforming racism had made a cruel impossibility, but with equality of results. And so a revolution in social policy followed a revolution in belief.

Massive income transfers ensued, as welfare benefits mushroomed and eligibility requirements loosened, and as a number of programs—Medicaid, SSI, food stamps, subsidized housing—ramped up. Punishment for crime became more lax, because (the new orthodoxy held) “crime is a response to exploitation and poverty.” Public education was dumbed down, and school discipline evaporated, because traditional standards of study and behavior were deemed an imposition of white middle-class values and a violation of students’ due-process rights.