The Big Surprise

Charles Murray: Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980; Basic Books; New York.

Charles Murray's book is a study of some of the biggest, and perhaps the least excusable, social problems facing American society. Losing Ground is based on a mass of data, and its message is clear and unmistakable: the benevolent social policies adopted in the 1960's have not merely failed, have not even simply made a bad situation worse—they have had the effect of reversing favorable trends. American society's real, if undeclared, ‘war on poverty," which was being won in the post-World War II era and as late as the mid-l960's, was lost—and by the very people who made it a "declared" war.

In 1950 about 30 percent of the American people, by current official definitions, were below the poverty line. This was reduced to about 13 percent by 1968. In 1980 that percent age remained the same, and by every possible index, that 13 percent lived lives that were worse, perhaps far worse, than the lives that were lived by most poor people in 1950 or 1968. They were more insecure, more drug-ridden, and more demoralized than ever.

These results, Murray shows, were not due just to the bad administration of basically good programs, but to a basic "strategic error" in the formulation of virtually...

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