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Why Can't Charles Murray Admit He Was Right?

Resisting the good news about welfare reform and the family.


Posted Friday, October 30, 2001

        Conservative welfare critic Charles Murray and the anti-welfare-reform left agree: Both say the apparent post-welfare-reform sea change in family patterns isn't much, because while more children are living with two parents, the increase is just in cohabitation, not actual marriage. But it's not just cohabitation.

        In a long Washington Post op-ed, Murray says "the proportion of children living with married parents remained statistically flat." He's wrong, at least for children under 6. Murray obviously hasn't seen the numbers recently put together by Richard Bavier, a veteran analyst for the Office of Management and Budget. From 1989 to 1995, the years preceding welfare reform, the share of young children living with married mothers decreased from 77.1 percent to 73.6 percent. Then it turned around -- from 1996, the year of reform, to 2000 it rose fairly steadily to 75.8 percent. That's not a huge change, but it's statistically significant, and it's an apparent reversal of direction for a trend that's been heading the wrong way for several decades.

        Murray cleverly doesn't confront the most striking pro-marriage statistic until two thirds of the way through his piece. "The best evidence of a bright spot," he concedes, "is that from 1995 to 2000, the proportion of black children living with married parents increased from 35 percent to 39 percent." Actually, Murray missed the latest figures which show that the proportion increased again in 2001 -- from 38 percent to 41 percent for black children under six. Murray grouses that some of the increase comes from "children living with a stepfather," but stepfathers are still, in Murray's own hierarchy, the second-best solution, after married biological fathers. He calls the overall trend among blacks a "minor change."

        Is it? Let's see -- the proportion of young black children living with married (not just cohabiting) parents was 58 percent in 1976. It fell to 52 percent in 1980 and 42 percent in 1985. By 1995 it had plummeted to 33 percent. In a mere five years after welfare reform, it's back up to 41 percent, making up for almost ten years of decline. Sorry -- the change may not last, it may not be due to welfare reform, but it's not a "minor change."

        Why does Murray have his ego invested in bad news about the family? Because if the 1996 welfare reform succeeds in turning around the black family's decline, that will give the lie to the thesis of Murray's 1984 book, Losing Ground, which claimed that nothing less than the elimination of welfare (not just the imposition of work requirements and time limits) would do the trick. If welfare reform has changed the environment in which young African-Americans grow up, that would also undermine the bogus claim, in Murray's more recent, co-authored book, The Bell Curve that "it matters little" if low black IQ scores reflect heredity, since "environment" is also virtually impossible to change. Looks like it's not!

        In his Post op-ed, Murray poses as a welfare reform enthusiast, giving his piece the false air of a statement against interest. In reality Murray denounced the reform bill that actually passed. "I don't care how many women go to work," he wrote in an attention-getting 1993 Wall Street Journal piece. He subsequently lobbied on Capitol Hill against the basic approach of 1996 bill, which was precisely an attempt to get women on welfare to go to work.

        It's not quite that simple, of course, because Murray's work -- especially the highly effective Losing Ground -- was, in fact, a major impetus to welfare reform, even if it was a reform of which Murray himself did not approve. Were Murray a more conventional Washington operator (like, say, the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector) he'd manage to take status-enhancing credit for reform's seeming success while criticizing it as incomplete. But Murray doesn't seem to want conventional Washington success. He wants to be the one notorious man who dares utter truths noone else is uttering. It's an appealing pose -- I've tried to strike it myself, on occasion. But sometimes the rest of the world comes around. And then, if you've adopted the lone-voice-of-truth pose, it requires a perverse submersion of ego to admit they've come around -- to admit you're not alone anymore, to admit that you've been proven right. That's what Murray can't seem to do.

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Copyright 2001 Mickey Kaus.

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