The Battle Over ‘Losing Ground’

Michael Barone, Washington Post, April 3, 1985.


The debate rages over Charles Murray’s book “Losing Ground.” Has he conclusively proved that Great Society programs hurt rather than helped the poor and therefore should be repealed? Or is he a hit-and-run mercenary in the pay of right-wingers who twists the numbers in order to kill off programs that do help the poor?

The arguments are made with a thunder and fury suggesting that the future of Aid for Families with Dependent Children and food stamps and Medicare and Medicaid depend on the outcome. But it doesn’t: Murray is quick to admit that his proposal to abolish such programs (but not unemployment insurance) is visionary and exceedingly unlikely to be adopted.

This is not a book to change society but a book to show society how it has changed. Like the education reports that came out in the spring of 1983, “Losing Ground” articulates feelings that millions of Americans have already acted on.

Murray and his critics tend to miss this point because their debate concentrates on the book’s economic argument. Rep. Jack Kemp says that if you subsidize something, you get more of it. Murray says that if you pay people who are poor or dependent you get more of them. But he is careful not to assert what his critics seem bent on disproving: that there is a one-to-one relationship between increases in benefits and welfare dependency or the various other kinds of negative behavior he describes. He concedes that AFDC payments declined in real dollars since 1970 and that the AFDC rolls nonetheless have held steady since then.

Washington Post