I recently debated the eminent social policy scholar and critic Charles Murray out at the University of Michigan. The event was organized by the great U of Mich poverty scholar Sheldon Danziger and it took off from the 50-year anniversary of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. Clarence Page gets extra points for his light and humorous touch as moderator.
Here’s the video but it’s long so I’ll summarize—or at least I’ll summarize what I think are the insights that I came away with. I think the early exchanges between Charles and me probably get at most of this…once we get into the cultural debates, it’s hard to pull out clear substance.
Much of what Charles and his critics, like myself, will argue about comes down to two things. First, by dint of his sole focus on individual behavior, he leaves out many, I’d say most, of the explanations for many of the phenomena he’s writing about. This is a well-known and constant critique of Charles work since his highly influential book on the perverse effects of the “welfare state,” Losing Ground. I hammer on this in my opening statement, particularly at the end. I even quote Shakespeare!
Second, he seems not to accept the evidence that for the most part, social welfare programs actually do what they’re supposed to do: provide a safety net for many facing economic hardship without distorting their behavior. Moreover, and this is a very important and relatively new dimension to the debate, we now have enough longitudinal information to show that some of these programs create opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise occur for children in poor families.
That may not sound like particularly earth-shaking news but I’ll explain in a moment why I think it’s so important.
First, however, let me say a bit more about that evidence.
Across generations, inequality links to opportunity and mobility through mechanisms such as spending on “child-enrichment” goods, like books, quality child-care, private schooling, after-school sports, music lessons, and so on. As income inequality has grown, so have the differences in what parents across the income spectrum spend on these goods: high-income families spent four times that of low-income families in the 1970s, when inequality took off; today, they spend seven times as much.
Another recent study finds that raising a poor family’s income by $3,000 a year (a fairly typical amount for a poor family to receive from refundable tax credits targeted at low-income households) between a child’s prenatal year and fifth birthday is associated with a 17 percent increase in earnings, and an average of 135 hours of additional work per year, compared to similarly low-income children whose families do not receive the increase in income. That last bit is very important—this is not a Murray-type story about well-off people with better cultural and work habits. It’s a “within-group” comparison.
Observing kids over their lifetimes is revealing that small class sizes and even Head Start, whose benefits were thought to fade out pretty quickly, are now showing up as contributing to college completion and later work and earnings. A new study links the educational mobility of poor kids to that of their parents.
OK, glaringly obvious stuff, but the reason it’s so important is that it links generational opportunity, as opposed to income equality, to social policy.
Poverty analyst Guy Stevens pointed out to me that in Losing Ground, Murray wrote that his ideal social programs would spend “Billions for equal opportunity, not one cent for equal outcome.” So, let’s see if we can agree on the following:
–people from all walks of life should have the opportunities they need to achieve their economic potential;
–that means they’ll need decent housing, education, medical care, and nutrition (note that I’m not saying anything yet about where they should get these things—just that we can all agree that their absence implies unequal access to opportunity);
–with those necessities in place, peoples’ opportunities for advancement should come from their efforts, so if they’re of working age and not disabled, they should work in the paid labor market.
Again, consistent conservatives, and Murray is one, would agree with the above (I’m not talking Akin/Bachmann, etc. here…). He of course argues that the more government plays a role in the provision of the goods and services in the second bullet above, the more it backfires, and you end up inculcating a sense of dependency and sloth…he talked a lot about “feckless males.”
So here’s where I close the argument and box my friend Charles into a tight corner (I really did enjoy my time with him).
I believe the evidence is strong and convincing that a) markets fail to broadly provide either the platform for opportunities in the second bullet above—decent educational options or adequate housing in safe neighborhoods—or the ample employment opportunities at living wages that could lift them out of poverty, and b) the poverty programs to offset these shortfalls do not have the negative effects Murray claims.
And where the market fails, public policy must step up—again, a principle with which conservatives historically agree.
Now, Charles, as you’ll see, doesn’t buy the research of the type I present here that poverty programs essentially work without distortions, so perhaps that corner isn’t as tight as it should be.
But I’m convinced the argument is really quite air-tight. We don’t have to argue one lick about inequality of outcomes, except to recognize that they are negatively affecting the equality of opportunity. Once we’re straight on that, it’s a short step to recognizing a) ways in which the market fails to provide disadvantaged families with the ladders they, or more precisely, their kids, need, and b) ways in which social policy can provide those ladders without distorting incentives.